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Category Archive: Content Marketing

  1. The 5 Stages of Content Marketing Growth

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    The true power of a content marketing campaign only makes itself clear with a suitable investment of time. Initially, you won’t see much in the way of results; your readership will be small, your authority will be negligible, and your content archives will be scarce. However, each new piece you create will serve as a semi-permanent landmark, and each new reader you attract will feasibly stick around for the long haul. These features make content marketing a strategy with the potential for exponential growth—provided you’re able to grow your efforts proportionally.

    content marketing growth

    (Image Source: Portent)

    Most people “get” content marketing conceptually, and may even be able to piece a basic strategy together, but people really get thrown off when they try to devise a strategy for long-term growth. It’s a confusing process, often manifesting in fits and starts, but you need to be able to predictably control it if you want to eventually reap the benefits.

    To help you better understand this growth process, I’ve split the “typical” content marketing timeline into five key stages of growth:

    1. Incubation.

    During this stage, you’ll be laying the groundwork for your campaign. When it starts, most of your work will be conceptual, manifesting as plans, strategies, and outlined processes for success. From there, you’ll be creating the building blocks for your vision, such as designing your blog, filling out your social media profiles, establishing your author profiles, and filling up your website with a suitable archive of posts. You’ll need these materials to work with as you start building your strategy, so you’ll be moving forward, but don’t expect a huge influx of readers and fans from the start.

    2. Anchoring.

    The next phase of growth is all about establishing certain “anchor points” for your campaign—think of these as the main spokes of webbing a spider would use to build a web. These can come in a variety of forms; for example, you might build up an initial following of a few hundred people by tapping your close contacts. You might create one or two “landmark” pieces, like eBooks or comprehensive guides. You could start working with one or two major publishers, developing your own powerful outside channel. The point is to secure some major mechanisms for growth early on.

    3. Experimentation.

    Here, you’ll start playing around with the tropes, methods, and tactics you’ve started growing accustomed to. It’s probably the biggest and hardest leap for content marketers to make, since it’s so easy to get used to your initial series of habits. Once you start seeing decent results, it’s common for marketers to just keep doing what they’ve been doing, but if you want to grow, you need to strive for something bigger and better. Experimentation comes in a variety of forms, all of which can be helpful. For example, you might try to appeal to a new audience, tinker around with a new medium or channel, or get yourself featured in a new line of publishers. Think outside the box here, as the further outside your comfort zone you go, the more you’ll stand to learn about what’s possible in content marketing—and of course, measure everything to a rigorous degree.

    4. Stabilization.

    Experimentation is inherently volatile—you’ll get some major wins, some major losses, and some results you aren’t quite sure what to do with. The stabilization phase of growth is all about sorting out what does and doesn’t work, and piecing together a strategy that’s cohesive, and relatively stable. It’s not going to come quickly or easily, as experimentation offers much more flexibility, but what you want is a stable, secure line of revenue, so a stable, secure means of content production and promotion is what you need to complement it. First, cut off your experimentation for the time being (you can always come back to this later), then retain and refine any bits and pieces of strategies you found to be especially helpful. Mold these into a new wing of your strategy, and start keeping it consistent. As more readers grow used to this approach, you’ll earn more loyalty and a more predictable return.

    5. Scaling.

    After stabilizing your campaign, the final phase of growth is sheer scaling—taking what you have and making it “bigger” in some way. In concept, this is a simple matter of quantitative growth; if you produce five posts a week, shoot for seven. If you have a network of eight publishers, shoot for a dozen. You’ll want to step up your posts, your syndication channels, your following, and your publishers, all iteratively, and all with the strategies you’ve already proven to be successful. This demands significant investment, but the results are worth it.

    These five stages aren’t universal, and they aren’t as concretely divided as they would seem on the surface. As I mentioned earlier, it’s more likely that your path to content marketing growth will happen in fits and starts, launching forward when you least expect it and stagnating even when you pour extra effort in. You’ll also experience blurrier lines between each phase, sometimes skipping around, and sometimes repeating phases (especially phases three through five).

    What’s important here isn’t the order or precise boundaries of growth, but the general trends and influencing factors. These will help you set better priorities, aim for more specific goals, and ultimately push your content strategy toward the appropriate next stages.

  2. How to Characterize a Software Product Through Branding

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    As a SaaS company, the heart of your business is your core software product, but unfortunately, until you grow to a much bigger size and reputation, your product isn’t going to sell itself. You can describe the logical benefits of your product, compare your price to your competitors, and demonstrate expert salesmanship when pitching it to new potential clients, but if it’s missing that “extra ingredient” to compel new users, even the best product on the market can fall flat.

    What is this extra ingredient? Branding. With it, an ordinary product can become extraordinary, and an extraordinary product can become unstoppable. But why is this branding element so important, and how can you characterize an inanimate, intangible product with it successfully?

    Why Is Branding Important for SaaS Companies?

    Branding is important for all companies for the following reasons:

    Recognition and customer acquisition.

    Branding allows your product (and company) to be recognized at a distance, much in the way that McDonald’s arches and the Nike swoosh have become simple symbols of much bigger, more complicated organizations. Over time, reiteration of these symbols and general atmospheres can lead to higher brand awareness, a better brand reputation, and therefore, a higher customer acquisition rate.

    Trust and loyalty.

    Consistent branding can also help you establish trust and loyalty in your existing population. When a user has a consistently positive experience, associated with some aspect of identity (such as a visual, or a tone of voice), he/she starts to associate the identity with the positive experience. It makes the decision to switch to a competitor that much harder, and encourages them to stay with your brand, specifically, for as long as possible.

    Foundation for advertising.

    Branding also gives you a solid direction on how to develop your advertising campaigns. It may give you a tone of voice, limits in terms of humor and sensationalism, visual cues, or a running theme you can exploit many times over. Not only does this make your advertising more effective; it also makes the conceptual process easier.

    Internal factors.

    Branding isn’t only for your customers. Creating a strong brand for your product, and your organization in general, can help you create a strong internal company culture as well. For example, let’s say you characterize your product as fun, energetic, and down-to-earth; in the right environment, you can nurture these characteristics in your employees, resulting in a more unified, productive, satisfied workforce. Google’s company culture is a perfect example.

    google company culture

    (Image Source: Google)

    But it’s even more important to SaaS companies because:

    Competition is fierce.

    Everyone realizes what a profitable and scalable model SaaS is, and as a result, the market’s been flooded with software products hoping for a piece of the action. Odds are, you have several competitors with few distinguishing factors between you. Branding can be your key distinguishing factor, edging out the competition immediately.

    Face-to-face interaction is nonexistent.

    Because most SaaS platforms are hosted online without a physical office, there’s almost no chance of face-to-face or personal interaction during the sales cycle. At the same time, personal connections are important to make strong sales and keep good customers. The solution? Use branding as a personal surrogate, demonstrating brand qualities the way you would a real personality.

    Short sales cycles.

    Your users are going to make a decision within a minute or two (for the most part). That’s not a lot of time to give your users a tour of your product or exhaustively list all the objective benefits of it. Instead, you have to give your potential customers a quick gut-level feeling that this is a good idea—and branding can help you do it.

    Retention is the gold standard.

    Finally, you have to know that SaaS companies aren’t won or lost in customer acquisition—it’s retention that separates the winners and losers. Branding can help you breed the familiarity, “personal” relationships, and commitment that keeps your customers subscribing to your service through thick and thin.

    The Trouble With Characterizing a Software Product

    Unfortunately, branding a product isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. You need something compelling, or else your brand won’t attract any new customers (or retain old ones), you need something that fits with your mission and vision as a company (or else it will be unstable), and you need something sustainable in the long-term (or else it won’t pay off). On top of those requirements, you’re working with something intangible and flexible, rather than a physical product.

    Throughout this guide, I’ll walk you through the main strategies you can use to develop a workable framework for your software brand, and implement it across your product, your site, your support network, your social media profiles, and of course, your advertising campaigns.

    Establishing Your Brand Standards

    Before your start applying your brand to the different areas of your SaaS business, you need to know what your brand standards are in the first place. I’ve written an extensively detailed guide, How to Build a Brand from Scratch, on the matter, so I’ll stay out of the weeds here, but I do want to highlight some of the most important components of a brand, and where those components are going to apply in your main strategies.

    Main Goals

    There are many goals for a brand to accomplish, but SaaS companies specifically need to zoom in on four of them:

    Differentiation.

    As noted above, one of the biggest challenges for SaaS companies in the current era is competition, so branding must serve as a differentiating factor. What is that factor? That’s up to you and your target audience. For example, compared to your competitors, could you be more professional in tone to appeal to more business people? Could you be more casual in tone to appeal to a younger audience? Do you want to be edgier? More traditional? There’s no right or wrong answer here, but when it’s all said and done, your brand should stand out from anything else on the market.

    Connection.

    Your brand needs to have a personal appeal to your target demographics. For this goal, it’s helpful to think of your brand as a kind of avatar for your company, representing it in a personal way so that your customers can form a personal attachment. Accordingly, your brand needs to embody characteristics that are approachable, familiar, or otherwise engaging to your target market (and you may need to do some research for this). As an example, take MailChimp’s literal “chimp” mascot, who makes everything seem friendlier, funnier, and more approachable.

    mailchimp

    (Image Source: MailChimp)

    (Side note: you don’t need a mascot to accomplish this)

    Immersion.

    The immersion factor is one unique to SaaS companies, since some brands have the luxury of limited customer interactions. Your customers, however, will be using your product for extended periods of time, and engaging with your brand in many different mediums, from your app itself, to your content, your website, your help pages, and even your social media accounts. If you want to be successful, you need to nurture an entire environment where people feel connected to your brand—not just one-time representations or one-sided interactions.

    Reinforcement.

    You need to use your brand to reinforce positive experiences with your product, and continually remind users why they signed up for your service in the first place. A good brand will have the potential to summarize all the visions and values of your company, and repeat itself throughout many channels, mediums and applications. The more places you are, the more you’ll be seen, and the more easily recognized you’ll be.

    Main Applications

    Now that you know what you need to accomplish, you need to know the main paths through which you can accomplish them. Creating a brand isn’t easy, but it helps if you can reduce your identity standards down to four main “groups” of characteristics.

    Logo and colors.

    Up first are the logo and colors of your brand, which are usually the first elements that people notice. There’s a reason for this; humans have strong visual senses, so we naturally lock onto and remember visual patterns. You’ll need to select a color scheme that fits your company’s tone, mood, and target audience (as well as your competitive landscape), and your logo should attempt to concisely represent who your company is and what it has to offer.

    Image and character.

    This set of characteristics is a bit more abstract, as it defines the “concept” of your brand more so than any tangible assets. For this, it’s often best to visualize your brand as a character, and imagine what that character might be like (as well as how it might be different from your competitors). Apple took this step literally in its now-landmark advertising campaign pitting Macs against PCs with actors representing each brand. You don’t have to go this far, but you do need to be able to describe the “type” of person your brand would be.

    image and character

    (Image Source: Business Insider)

    Voice.

    As another outlet for your brand’s communication, consider the tone and shape of your voice. I alluded to this a bit earlier, but you’ll need to consider a number of questions regarding how you write; how advanced is your vocabulary going to be? How casual can you be with your words, in terms of colloquialisms, abbreviations, and profanity? Will your sentences be short and concise or long and descriptive? These choices help shape your brand identity, and make a big impact on users whether they realize it or not.

    User experience.

    Finally, there are user experience factors, and this set of identity standards is unique to SaaS companies. Your users are going to be engaging with your software regularly, so how they interact with your software may help them form a stronger brand impression. For example, how does your app respond to their inputs? What feelings do your users get when they log in? We’ll explore some specific applications and examples of this later on.

    Be sure to formally document your strategy for each of these key areas, as this will serve as your identity guidelines moving forward. Keep this document handy as we move through the next few sections.

    The following sections will each touch on one area of application for your new brand standards, exploring how best to integrate the concept of your brand in a way your consumers will identify and relate to.

    The Product

    First, we need to take a look at the product itself, the reason you’re in business. You may already have a set framework or concept for your app, but the final layer of design and development should be heavily influenced by the type of brand you want to create.

    Overall design

    The type of basic design you offer can make a radical difference in how a user receives your app. Here, you need to think beyond what’s the most aesthetically pleasing (though that helps too) and think about what’s going to cement your brand’s identity in the minds of your users.

    These are just a handful of questions to get you started:

    • Do you want to look futuristic, or do you want a throwback look?
    • Do you want something fun and idiosyncratic, or something serious and precise?
    • Do you want something colorful and creative, or something more analytical and defined?
    • What colors should be prominent in your app, and what level of contrast do you want to achieve?

    There are no right or wrong answers to these choices; again, this all depends on who your target audience is and how you want to differentiate yourself. Whatever you choose, your choice should be apparent throughout the application, aiding the “immersive” experience that a successful brand-consumer relationship demands.

    Take Workday’s app as an example; it uses bright, palette colors throughout its app and precise, formal design choices to demonstrate an aura of professionalism while still being friendly and approachable.

    workday

    (Image Source: Workday)

    Functionality

    Of course, the design fun doesn’t stop at these basic design questions. You’ll also want to consider what types of functionality you want to include, and how those functions might signal different brand qualities to your users.

    For example, imagine you have a row of tabs on the main part of your app, and whenever you hover over one, it pops up, growing bigger and changing colors dynamically. Now imagine a wheel of options in the center of the page, and whenever you hover over one option, the others fade away. These produce two very distinct “feels,” the former being more fun and out-of-the-way, and the latter being more pragmatic and efficient.

    The type of functionality you present can be at a high level, such as deciding what features to offer your users or how to incorporate those features in a basic design, or at a more specific level, such as coming up with Easter eggs and quirks that your users can find by exploring your app.

    A “claim to fame”?

    If your software has a “claim to fame,” or some kind of functional distinction that separates it from other brands in your niche, you need to play this up throughout your product wherever you can. For example, let’s say your uniqueness rests on your app’s ability to perform functions faster than any other app on the market. In this case, you may want to include subtle reminders of this “speed” factor, such as tongue-in-cheek references on loading pages, or timers for specific functions.

    You don’t need to have one of these, but it can be helpful in securing your users’ loyalty. Brainstorm about the different advantages your company could offer, and settle on at least one that you can play up. This will also help you when you create advertising and social campaigns for your brand.

    Site and Support

    If you’re like most SaaS companies, you’ll have a website and a support/help center for your users in addition to wherever your software is hosted (website, mobile app, etc.). This is another great opportunity for you to show off what makes your brand special, appeal to curious new users, and of course, retain the users you’ve already collected.

    Layout and design

    Your first look should be at the layout and design of your website. For the most part, you can follow the same rules you followed in the design portion of your software development. Think about the way your colors and logo can integrate into your design, and question what types of functionality you want to offer your users. Obviously, you want your site to be intuitive and functional, but how are your choices affecting users’ perceptions of your brand identity?

    Copy and content

    Copy and content are both forms of writing for your audience, but the former is about quick-hitting headlines and opportunities for conversion, while the latter is about presenting information.

    In the former case, your web copy can do an awesome job of presenting exactly what kind of character your brand is. Carefully consider your tone, as every word here is going to count, and inject your headlines with bits of humor, or pride, or exclusivity, depending on your brand and goals. Zendesk has an excellent example with this headline, where they reveal their approachable vocabulary and throw in a vanilla punchline to get a quick laugh while avoiding rocking the boat:

    copy and content

    (Image Source: Zendesk)

    Your content marketing strategy is another powerful opportunity to demonstrate your brand, and it can manifest in a few different areas. First, you’ll want an ongoing content strategy to fuel your SEO campaign and attract new readers; this will likely reside in your blog. Second, you’ll want a comprehensive help and support section, full of interactive and searchable documents to help users when they (inevitably) encounter trouble with your software. In both cases, you’ll need to keep your content concise, and strictly adherent to the tone you’ve established for your brand. When users encounter this content, they’ll either be seeing your brand for the first time, or they’ll be in need of help—either way, they’re especially vulnerable, and your angle could make or break their impression of your brand.

    Examples and Easter eggs

    Throughout your help section especially, you’ll have the opportunity to include Easter eggs and subtle tidbits that your observant users will pick up on. They can be inside jokes, subtle references, or unique pockets of functionality that aren’t otherwise visible.

    For example, take MailChimp’s sample template referencing “adorable kittens” as an amusing alternative to something like lorem ipsum text. It falls in line with the amusing and friendly nature of the brand:

    mailchimp template design

    (Image Source: MailChimp)

    Personal exchanges

    Finally, whether it’s in a live chat, on a forum, or in some other method of exchange, you’ll probably be communicating with customers directly to resolve issues. When you do this, make sure your customer service representatives are using a voice and approach that falls in line with your brand standards. This will add a layer of comfort and familiarity to the experience, and if consistent enough, will lead to higher feelings of brand trust and loyalty. From there, your customer retention rates will skyrocket.

    Social Media and Advertising

    I’ve lumped the two of these applications together because, while independent, they are related. Both involve communicating directly with an audience outside the scope of your software product itself (or your website, in most cases). Ultimately, your brand standards should govern your approach to each.

    Personality and content

    Social media gives you the chance to truly show off your personality, and you better take advantage of it. Social media is where your users are going to turn when they want to contact you directly, the “you” in this case being your brand. Remember my example earlier, where I alluded to the fact that your brand should be a stand-in for a real person? The concept applies here too. Whenever you make a post, or respond to a user, or do anything on social media, you need to do so in a “voice” that matches your brand standards. This is going to be tough, especially since you’ll probably have multiple people working on one account, and you’ll often be posting as a reactionary measure, rather than a premeditated one. However, with solid and consistent brand standards, you can keep this atmosphere consistent and enhance the approachability and familiarity of your brand.

    Multiple social arms

    It’s also a good idea, if your audience is large enough, to segment your social media presence into different designated arms, such as one for customer support and one for regular updates. SalesForce takes this to another level, with no fewer than six separate Twitter accounts to follow, depending on your goals.

    salesforce twitter accounts

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    This will help you maintain consistency and delegate responsibilities for different engagements while keeping your overall brand consistent. You’ll also need to apply your brand standards to multiple social profiles at once, simultaneously following best practices for each app.

    Community building

    The more your brand is mentioned, the more popular and visible it’s going to become; when you develop a powerful enough community, you can ease off the gas and let your community start doing the promotional work for you. At higher levels of development, some SaaS companies start earning more customers simply because they have so many existing customers talking about them and working with them on a regular basis.

    You can encourage the development of a community in your own social spheres (and on your site) by creating a forum, engaging with your customers regularly, rewarding customers for engaging with others, and encouraging more brand engagements with contests, questions, and requests for user-submitted content.

    Brand as a foundation

    There are tons of advertising options beyond content marketing and social media; PPC advertising, banner ads, and even traditional forms of advertising like TV and radio are just a handful of examples. Your brand needs to serve as a foundation for all of these if you want to maximize your potential; if you’re consistent, this will greatly increase user familiarity with your brand, and keep your company top-of-mind with those already engaging with it. Before you develop the concept for a new ad campaign, ask yourself, does this fit in with my company’s image? Is the tone right? Are the company’s colors and logos visible? Does this accurately represent the type of experience a user might have with the app? You need to answer “yes” to all these questions before proceeding.

    Parting Thoughts

    Consistency.

    I’ve covered a lot of information in this guide, and most of it has focused on creating your brand standards and where you can apply those standards to fully characterize your brand. This will help you conceptualize a brand, and it gives you a good visual map for how your brand needs to develop, but there are a handful of further considerations I want to leave you with as you begin your SaaS brand journey.

    Branding is one of the most powerful and important marketing strategies you’ll use, in part because it affects all your other strategies, but it’s only going to be effective if you’re consistent with it. You can’t apply your brand to just your product, or just your social media campaign, and hope to reap the full benefits of the integration, nor can you change your brand standards a few months into the game. You can tweak your brand, gradually over time, but you have to give users that consistent look, feel, and comfort, or you’ll never be able to build the recognition or retention you need.

    Invisible values.

    It’s hard to directly measure the results of your branding efforts; you can’t calculate a brand ROI the way you can with just a social media marketing or just an SEO strategy. Branding’s most impressive values are actually somewhat invisible, unless you try to measure them with qualitative user surveys; for example, how can you measure the average person’s “awareness” of your brand? How can you measure a person’s disposition toward staying with your brand (especially when compared to a hypothetical scenario in which you have a different brand entirely)? You’ll have to rely on indirect indicators here.

    Company culture.

    I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeating. If you want to reap the full value of a comprehensive SaaS brand, you can’t think of it as only existing for your customers. Your brand’s character and style should permeate your entire organization, giving your employees a standard to aspire to and giving them a foundation for how to interact with customers and vendors. It’s going to leave you with a more powerful, more cohesive organization—even if you don’t notice it right away.

    When characterized with a carefully considered and thoroughly described brand, your software will do a better job of standing out, pleasing your customers, and ultimately making you more money. Don’t take this strategy lightly.

  3. How to Use Google Analytics to Audit Your Content Strategy

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    It’s not enough to merely have a content marketing strategy. No matter how perfectly thought-out your approach was, how brilliant your tactics are in theory, or how successful you are in executing your campaign, there’s still one more step preventing you from fully reaping the rewards of content marketing: review.

    Reviewing your procedures and results is a necessary step if you want to know whether all your efforts were worth it; skipping this process is akin to throwing darts at a dart board, blind, and never checking to see if you hit the target. Not only will you remain ignorant of whether or not your content strategy is working, you’ll never gain the opportunity to make improvements, because you’ll never figure out what weaknesses you can compensate for or which strengths you can enhance.

    Moving Parts

    There’s a big hurdle most companies face before even beginning a content marketing audit, however: the many moving parts of a content marketing strategy. Though the basic concept of content marketing is simple (attracting more people to your brand through the publication of unique, valuable content), the reality touches many areas at once. This makes measuring the effectiveness of your campaign and diagnosing potential problems equally difficult.

    For example, let’s say you’re trying to figure out how much value your content is brining you. Which channels do you look at? Theoretically, content can bring you organic traffic from search engines, direct traffic from repeat visitors, referral traffic from outside sources, and social traffic from your social media platforms. Besides that, how do you measure brand loyalty you’ve gained, or what kind of impressions you’re making?

    The Right Tool for the Jo

    It’s tough to hit all these points with only one tool, and even harder to reduce them all to quantitative values, since so many content effects are both qualitative and long-term. Rather than explore the many types of tools you can use to evaluate different angles of your campaign (perhaps I’ll save that for a future post), today I want to narrow my focus to one tool that can help you get a “big picture” snapshot of your campaign. It’s highly effective, easy to pick up, and best of all, it’s free for everyone: it’s Google Analytics, and we’re going to use it to audit your content marketing strategy.

    Topic Success

    We’ll be getting into some of the measurable effects your content has, including how much traffic it generates, a bit later, but first, let’s take a look at how well your posts are performing in general. Performance, or “success” here is hard to pin down, since there are so many factors you’ll want to consider:

    These are mostly qualitative measures, but we can indirectly infer how your content is performing with a couple of key areas in your Analytics dashboard.

    How to Measure

    We’re going to be looking at the “Behavior” section of Analytics, where we can learn how people are accessing and engaging with your site. To start, open up the Site Content submenu and click on All Pages.

    behavior google analytics

    Here, you’re going to see a pretty massive breakdown of all the pages of your site, along with a number of metrics relating to those pages. At the top will probably be your “main” navigation pages, such as your home, about, and contact pages, but as you scroll down (and expand the chart to account for all pages in your sitemap), you’ll start finding your individual blog pages.

    analytics per page

    There are a number of dimensions to look at here:

    • Pageviews, which tell you how many people visited this page of your site.
    • Unique pageviews, which tell you how many “unique” visitors you had for this page (i.e., no repeat traffic).
    • Average time on page, which tells you how long a user has spent on this page.
    • Entrances, which tell you how many people used this page to first enter your site.
    • Bounce rates, which tell you how many people left this page after viewing it as the first page of your site.
    • Exit rates, which tell you how many people left this page after viewing it as the final page of your site.

    You should also note the degree of control you have over this menu. For starters, you can adjust the date parameters to reflect a certain time period. If you want a “zoomed out” look at your content strategy overall, you can set this to months or years, but for most people, the past month is a good range to look at. You can also segment the traffic that appears in this breakdown, which is extremely useful for determining your content’s effectiveness in different sectors. For example, you can look at how only your social-originated traffic engages with your content. Play around with your options here.

    traffic segment

    Key Takeaways

    There are a handful of key indicators to look for here to evaluate your content performance:

    • Post popularity. Which posts are receiving the most pageviews? This report filters pages by this statistic by default, so take a look at your top-performing posts. What do they have in common? Similarly, which posts seem to be underperforming? This will give you a general indication of how attractive these topics are.
    • Time on page. This is an excellent measure of how interested people are in your content after visiting it, and will tell you how “good” your material is. This is different from initial attractiveness; for example, let’s say you have a post with only a handful of pageviews but the time spent on page is extraordinarily high. This tells you your headline isn’t very attractive, but your content is engrossing. In the opposite scenario, your headline may be powerfully compelling, but your content can’t back it up.
    • Exit rate. Your goal should be to have your content be so interesting, or so positive that it encourages people to explore your site further. If your exit rates are unnaturally high, it means your content isn’t doing a good job of making people interested in your brand.

    We’ll be taking a look at a few more “performance” metrics in the “bottom line” section of this guide, but these should get you started in the right direction.

    SEO Benefits

    The SEO side of content is at once harder and easier to explore; you can gather tons of data about how you’re doing from a search optimization perspective, but it’s difficult to tie this specifically to your content marketing campaign. For the most part, you’ll have to look at the broad strokes of your SEO efforts, and make adjustments to your content strategy to compensate for them. For example, if your rankings and organic traffic are stagnating, you know something needs to change in your approach.

    How to Measure

    There are a few different places where you can learn about the state of your SEO campaign (and a ton of third party tools that can dig even deeper), but we’re interested in the big picture here. Let’s start by taking a look at the Acquisition section, where we can learn about where your site traffic is coming from. Start by heading to the Overview section.

    acquisition google analytics

    Here, you’ll see a handy breakdown of the four main sources of traffic your site receives: direct, referral, social, and organic traffic. You can compare and contrast various metrics related to these traffic streams, which is valuable, but for right now, we’re only interested in organic traffic (traffic that comes from search engines).

    traffic sources

    Click on “Organic Search” here, and you’ll see a breakdown of your traffic similar to the breakdown you saw for all the pages of your site, with information about the visitors coming in.

    google analytics chart

    On the left, you’ll see a “keyword” section which may provide you information about the most popular queries that led people to your site. However, Google has gotten stingy about providing this information (since it prompts people to try and manipulate their ranks). For the most part, you’ll see “not provided” listed here. There are some ways around this data hurdle, especially with third party tools, but again, we’re looking at the big picture here.

    Key Takeaways

    The biggest factor you want to monitor is how your organic traffic is developing. With a proper and upward scaling content strategy, your organic traffic figures should increase month over month (with occasional discrepancies for seasonal changes or random fluctuations). If you aren’t seeing this growth, or if you suspect something’s wrong, you can gather that at least one of the following is true:

    • Your onsite SEO is flawed. This is unrelated to your content strategy, but is important to note.
    • Your onsite content has dropped in quality. This could result in less engaged traffic, lower authority measures, or fewer inbound links, all of which could negatively affect your SEO growth.
    • Your offsite content has slowed or dropped in quality. Your offsite content efforts are responsible for building the links that pass authority to your site. If there’s a flaw in the quality of your material, your sources, or your patterns of growth, your momentum could suffer.
    • You’ve failed to scale. As your business climbs in ranks, gaining more and more visibility, you’ll have to pour more and more effort in your strategy if you want to continue growing. Of course, if you’re happy where you’re at, it’s possible to maintain your traffic flow with consistent continued efforts—but why stay satisfied with where you are, when you have the chance to grow even further?
    • A competitor has emerged. Your drop in organic traffic could be the result of a newly emerged competitor, and there’s not much you can do about that other than step up your strategy to fight back against their arrival.

    Any of these could be the root problem, and it’s up to your personal insights to figure out which. With a little digging—such as evaluating your backlink profile to determine the state of your offsite strategy, or conducting competitive research to see how your content stacks up against a competitor’s—you should be able to pinpoint the problem further. Otherwise, take note of your traffic figures and count them as a beneficial effect of your strategy. If you’re consistently growing, month after month, you know you’re doing something right!

    Social Influence

    This section assumes you’re using social media to syndicate, promote, or otherwise enhance the visibility of your content marketing strategy—as well you should. One of social media marketing’s most significant benefits is increasing the reach of your onsite material, and it also helps you realize how effective your campaign is at attracting attention. It’s hard to filter out non-content-related social factors as influential here, such as engaging in conversations with other influencers or responding to social comments; however, these can be interpreted as forms of content in their own right.

    How to Measure

    Remember that Acquisition Overview where we just looked at organic traffic? Now we’re going to take a look at social traffic. You’re going to see a fairly similar chart here, broken down by the individual social media source:

    traffic from social media

    The basic stats here are going to be familiar. Sessions, new sessions, new users, bounce rate, and pages per session are the main indicators here. You can also click into any of your social media profiles for more details about the types of people visiting your site and what their resulting behavior is.

    If you’re engaged in an offsite SEO component to your content strategy (i.e., guest posting), you’ll also want to take a look at the referral traffic here. This is going to tell you where most of your external-link-based traffic is coming from, distributed by source. This is useful for determining not only which publishers are sending you the most traffic, but which posts are resonating with which segments of those audiences the best.

    Key Takeaways

    Your takeaways here will be dependent on a number of variables, so I’ll try to keep this high level:

    • Your most effective social distribution channels. This is an easy metric to spot, and should speak volumes about your target demographics. However, this is also dependent on how active you are on this platform and what tactics you’re currently using; for example, you might have tremendous potential on Instagram, but if you aren’t using it correctly, it may appear at the bottom of your list.
    • The appropriateness of your content strategy for each platform. Is there one platform that seems to be underperforming compared to the others, or one platform that’s a rock star? It probably means the appropriateness of your strategy matches its demographics better than the others. You may need to tailor your content strategy a bit differently to account for this.
    • Which topics perform best per platform. Once you drill down to the individual platform metrics, you’ll able to uncover which content topics are performing best on each platform. You can use this information to customize your content distribution to appeal to these segments. For example, you might find that your Twitter audience prefers “quick tips” style posts, while your Facebook audience prefers in-depth analyses.
    • Platform-specific engagement rates. Don’t forget to look at metrics like bounce rate and pages per session on a per-platform basis, as well. You’ll probably find that some of your platforms have higher engagement rates, which may mean that this platform’s demographics are closer to your brand’s target audience, or that your content strategy is simply better in these areas.

    Ultimately, you should be able to use this data to perfect your platform-specific strategies, and reallocate your resources to favor the most useful platforms to your brand.

    Bottom Line

    Traffic and engagement figures are nice, but what really matters to the overall “value” of a content strategy is how many conversions you’re able to earn. Once you calculate the value of a conversion (either with an average sale, or average close ratio and customer lifetime value, depending on the nature of your conversion), you can measure conversions and assign a roughly accurate figure to the overall ROI of your campaign.

    How to Measure

    First, you’re going to want to create “goals,” which are Analytics’s way of helping you identify, categorize, and track the meaningful conversion actions throughout your site. You can track things like checkouts, form signups, or other forms of interaction (like playing a video or clicking a specific link). Head to the admin section of your dashboard, and click on the Goals section.

    goals google analytics

    The process is relatively straightforward. Unless you’re doing something abnormal or crazy, you can use one of Google’s many approachable templates to build a goal that suits your needs.

    goal settings google analytics

    If you need further help getting set up with the goals you want to track, Google has a fantastic guide on the subject.

    Once your goals are created, you can track them in a handful of different ways. From the highest-level perspective, you can track your goals globally just by accessing the goals section and looking at each of your constructs. You can even assign a value to a goal to make your at-a-glance value even more apparent.

    You also have the ability to track goals as they relate to different reports you’ve already generated. For example, in our page breakdown (in the section on topic performance near the top of this guide), you can evaluate how many people from a specific page ended up completing each of your goals, which can tell you the conversion potential of each blog post you produce.

    Key Takeaways

    The biggest takeaway here is the conversion potential of your content strategy. When viewed as a percentage, you’ll be able to see exactly how well a piece of yours converts compared to your other pieces; from these, you can glean key insights about which topics have the greatest potential to convert, and which calls-to-action generate the best responses.

    Analysis and Action

    Throughout this guide, I’ve shown you all the ways that Google Analytics can help you understand the effectiveness of your content marketing campaign, but there’s still one more step to take. Data and conclusions are important, and can make you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but they’re only meaningful if they lead to some kind of action. Unless you compensate for the weaknesses you’ve uncovered, boost the areas of strength you’ve measured, or otherwise adjust your campaign to see better results in the future. Everything you glean from Google Analytics, or any other measurement platform for that matter, should be boiled down to some kind of actionable takeaway. Focus on doing, rather than just evaluating, and you’ll end up with a higher performing campaign in no time.

  4. How Twitter’s Content Algorithm Is Influencing Instagram

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    Social media is a relatively new area for development, and apps are constantly clamoring to offer better, more unique functions to their customers. When new apps break into the scene, they usually offer something truly novel, that no other mainstream app has offered before, but eventually, they settle into a rhythm of mutual influence, where they “normalize” (for lack of a better word) and start integrating functions present in other apps to make a more mainstream, approachable model.

    The bottom-line effect from this phenomenon is that when one social media platform comes out with a new feature, another is sure to come out with their own version before too long. That was the case with Twitter’s new content algorithm, as Instagram is now coming out with its own version of the update—and it could have a lasting effect on the social media world in general.

    Twitter’s New Content Algorithm

    Twitter announced its new timeline changes back in February on its official blog, and the change was committed shortly thereafter. By default, Twitter used to display posts purely in chronological order—users’ timelines were filled with their followed accounts’ most recent updates at the top, with older updates populating below in descending order. After the update, a new algorithm selectively curates posts to appear in an order based on perceived relevance, not dissimilar to how Facebook newsfeeds currently display content.

    User reactions were polarizing at first, with some proclaiming the update as a massive step forward and others insisting that it took away some of what made Twitter special in the first place. Users can opt out of the feature easily enough, however, by changing one simple option in their account settings.

    Twitter Settings

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    The Instagram Update

    Thanks to Instagram’s currently higher popularity, especially with younger users, it made an even bigger impact when it announced a content algorithm change in March. According to Instagram’s formal announcement, users only end up seeing about 30 percent of their newsfeeds under the old model (pure chronological listings), forcing the company to assert that users are often missing out on some of the posts that would matter the most to them.

    Instagram, like Twitter, doesn’t get into the weeds explaining what their new content algorithm is or how it works, other than the fact that it will “select” the most relevant, appropriate content for users on an individual basis, and order that content using a blend of different factors. No posts will be removed from the timeline, so users will still have access to the same material they would otherwise—just in a different order.

    As with Twitter’s announcement, reactions have been mixed. Many users, companies, and organizations have heralded the update as a positive change (and a long time coming), but other users are in an uproar. Some have even taken to starting a petition to force Instagram to keep its purely chronological update.

    Instagram Settings

    (Image Source: Change.org)

    Despite the noise, it’s highly unlikely that Instagram is going to change its mind.

    Fears Over Selected Content

    Part of the reason there’s significant controversy over Twitter’s and Instagram’s decisions is a perceived loss of control by users. Chronological order was completely unbiased, and unaffected by any ulterior motives. Now that some extra layer is influencing how content is ordered, users are afraid that they’ll be manipulated by the companies in charge, at least to a certain degree. Few would outspokenly argue that there’s some grand hidden conspiracy by social media companies to brainwash or toy with their user bases (after all, that’s where they make their money), user manipulation isn’t completely unheard of.

    Back in 2014, Facebook revealed that it intentionally altered the Facebook timelines of more than half a million users, selectively filling user timelines with either strongly positive or strongly negative pieces of content to see whether users would have a similarly strong positive or negative reaction. It’s doubtful that the naysayers of these updates are worried about being emotionally manipulated in the same way, but this is the type of fear that permeates both user bases. Users have grown accustomed to things like Facebook newsfeeds and Google search results being sorted by an outside authority’s perceived relevance, but when such a change comes to a pre-existing unbiased organization, the dissonance becomes clear.

    The Normalization of Social Apps

    Users and marketers should also be conscious of this effect of “normalization” in social apps. While each “rising star” social app begins in a niche role, with specific polarizing features, as they gain more users and approach mainstream integration, they tend to gravitate toward a standardized formula. These new content algorithms are just one example—also consider how SnapChat has made itself less private with retrievable snaps, how Pinterest has turned itself into a kind of eCommerce hybrid, and how LinkedIn gradually inches closer and closer to Facebook in terms of look and feel.

    The Future of Social Media Competition

    There are a few key takeaways to learn from this wave of content algorithm changes. As a marketer, you need to make yourself aware of the possible changes social media platforms hold for the future, and what’s important to the users who rely on them. Be prepared for increased functionality geared toward user relevance, including possible controls on the company/organization side of things. As these changes roll out, it’s important to shift your focus from timing to even higher relevance—and of course, always keep watch for new trends on the horizon.

  5. How to Use Content to Earn More Conversions

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    Conversions are your path to making more money online. Get more conversions, and you’ll earn more revenue. It’s that simple. There are a handful of ways to increase your conversion rates, from using paid advertising to featuring your products on external eCommerce platforms, but for me, there’s no better tool for achieving conversions than content.

    “Conversions” are often loosely defined, and you’ll encounter some writers who will say a conversion has taken place when someone clicks through a different article, or socially shares your piece of content. For the purposes of this guide, however, we’ll focus on harder, more measurably valuable conversions—usually either securing a purchase or donation, or collecting some meaningful bits of personal information from a user. This guide’s intention is to teach you how to use content to get more of these hardline conversions for your site.

    Content vs. Copywriting

    First, I need to acknowledge an important distinction between content writing and copywriting. Though similar, copywriting is typically short-form, and focused on persuading an audience to take a specific action. You’ll find this type of writing in advertisements frequently. See Trello’s ad as an example:

    Trello

    (Image Source: Trello)

    Here, you have a catchy headline, a short description, and a CTA button. This is a fine example of copywriting, but it doesn’t have enough meat to be qualified as “content” in this sense. We’ll touch on elements of copywriting when we get to the section on in-content calls-to-action, but for the most part, everything in this guide will focus on actual content marketing.

    The 3 Pillars of Content-Conversion Relationships

    There are three main areas where content can affect your conversion rates, and I’m going to explore each of them in turn:

    • Acquisition.First, there’s content’s capacity to earn you more visitors. Increased traffic, with a steady conversion rate, is going to result in a higher total number of conversions. Our goals here will be writing, publishing, and syndicating content across multiple channels to secure the greatest volume and relevance of traffic to your site or landing page.
    • Exchange. Content may also be used as an element of exchange, particularly when it comes to B2B conversions that only ask for personal information as a conversion event. This content must be equal to or greater in value than the information you’re requesting.
    • Immediate conversion. There’s also the opportunity to leverage your content as a platform for immediate conversion. Here, you’ll be injecting CTAs into the body of your content in an effort to secure a completed conversion event.

    Without further ado, let’s find out exactly how content can secure you the conversion rates you’ve always wanted.

    Content as Acquisition

    Let’s assume that you have a steady conversion rate. You’re happy with it, but you need more inbound traffic to scale your total number of conversions to a desirable level. The best thing to do here is focus on generating traffic—and even if your conversion rate leaves something to be desired, more traffic is going to help you eventually, so you might as well get started here.

    Content is your greatest tool for long-term traffic generation, because it can be used in three interrelated ways.

    Onsite Content and SEO

    Understand that every new piece of content you create on your site is another page for Google to crawl and another opportunity for an average searcher to encounter your brand. My quick search for “SEO news” turned up three articles before even getting to the organic results, and this certainly isn’t the only way to get more search visibility.

    SEO News Search Results

    Writing more content gives your site more text for Google to crawl, giving it a better understanding of your site. Each new piece is also an opportunity to rank for a relevant user query. Accordingly, all your pieces should be:

    • Highly specific. General topics, like “SEO,” are already done to death by major brands you probably can’t afford to compete with—plus Google’s Knowledge Graph may supply searchers with this general information before they ever encounter you. Choosing very specific topics will help you navigate around these competitive challenges, and secure you greater per-piece visibility.
    • Desirable. Obviously, your content can only be found if people are actually searching for it. You’ll want to delve into some keyword research, competitive research, and into your current client base with surveys to ensure you’re selecting topics that people actually want to read. Generally, the more practical they are, the better.
    • Targeted. Your inbound traffic is only going to convert if they’re comprised of your target demographics in a mid- to late-stage of the buying cycle. Write your content accordingly. Dig deep into your market research, and try to supply information for the types of people who are most likely to convert once on your site.
    • Optimized. I won’t get into the specifics of SEO in this article, but know that your articles will have to meet certain SEO protocols to maximize their chances of being featured in SERPs. For example, title tags, header tags, a meta description, and visual elements should all be included.

    Be aware that it takes time to develop your domain authority to the point where your content earns a substantial rank.

    Offsite Content

    Offsite content has two main purposes. The first is for SEO and organic visibility. Google sees inbound links as a form of third-party approval of a site; a link from a high-authority domain will “pass” authority to its intended destination, increasing its authority by proxy. This occurs on both a domain and page level, and is necessary if you want to earn any ranking momentum.

    The second is for referral traffic. Any link you build using an offsite piece of content will be clickable, and if the content is good enough, it will generate a substantial stream of traffic to your site.

    You can take advantage of both these benefits as long as you have a solid offsite content marketing campaign. Typically, this involves getting your content featured on sources of increasing authority, from local news sites and forums to major national publishers. Again, I’ll stay out of the weeds on this, but I’ll leave you with a handful of important takeaways on how offsite content can best increase traffic ready to convert:

    • Write stellar content. If you’re just stuffing links into mediocre material, you’ll lose referral traffic, and you might not even get accepted by external publishers in the first place.
    • Know your audiences. Don’t write for a publisher whose audience is far outside your target demographics.
    • Link to your key conversion opportunities. If you have specific landing pages or product pages, link to them frequently to boost their page authority. If your homepage doubles as a conversion opportunity, that makes the process even simpler:

    Wave Apps

    (Image Source: WaveApps)

    Social Syndication

    You can also use your content as the “meat” for your social media campaign. Rather than constantly trying to goad your followers into visiting your site or buying your products, you’ll supply them with a near-constant stream of valuable content, which they can use to inform their decisions and build trust in your brand. Click-through rates on content are higher than for sales (typically), so use your content as a bridge to get your social users to your site, and sell them once they’ve crossed that bridge.

    Of course, you’ll also have to work on building up your social audiences—the more dedicated, active followers you have, the higher impact your content syndication will have on your bottom line. Remember to engage with your users, leverage the power of influencers to tap new markets, and remain as personal and active as possible.

    Content as an Exchange

    Conversions are always an opportunity of exchange; in conventional B2C settings, this involves a customer handing over money in exchange for a physical product. The more valuable this product is, the more likely it is that the consumer will partake in the exchange, giving you a critical opportunity to secure more conversions.

    There are two scenarios in which content may be used as the “other half” of this exchange as a standalone value. The first is in a B2B setting, where your company is only after personal information of potential leads. Personal information is valuable, if only mildly, and people won’t part with it unless they know they’re getting something out of the deal. Content, a digital good with infinite replicability, serves the role of exchange here quite well.

    Take HubSpot’s usual eBook offer as an example:

    hubspot optin form design

    (Image Source: Hubspot)

    The other scenario is one in which content is offered as the product in exchange for money, though an even higher standard of quality is demanded here. Still, both scenarios share much in common and can be used to the same ends.

    Key Values

    There are a handful of “must have” features for content you’re using as an exchange for conversion value:

    • Originality. It was true for your onsite and offsite content, but here it’s even more important. Why would someone give you their personal information for an eBook that they can basically read elsewhere on the Internet for free? Original research and new data is imperative here to seal the deal.
    • Practical value. Most people are willing to pay more (or give up more) for something that has a practical value than something that has a passing, or entertainment value. Give them something that could be qualified as an investment; teach them a new skill, or improve their lives in some meaningful way.
    • Exclusivity. You can’t offer an eBook in exchange for personal information, then distribute that same eBook for free to your social media followers. Your content should be an exclusive offer for anyone willing to convert. It’s a way of introducing scarcity value and simultaneously making sure people feel like they got their money’s worth (or in this case, information’s worth).
    • Length. Your eBook or whitepaper can’t be 1,000 words. Don’t stuff your content with fluff, either. Give your audience a long, detailed, yet still-concise piece.
    • Authority. If you want people to follow through with the conversion before reading your piece, you need to convince them that it’s all you say it is. This means showcasing your authority, or otherwise proving that you have the qualifications to make this piece of content worth your visitors’ time. Referencing past works, noting your industry affiliations, and offering up reviews and testimonials are all good ideas here.

    Balancing the Exchange

    This is a tough consideration, since you won’t be dealing with any absolute values, but it’s an important one. Remember, a conversion is all about exchange, so you need to know how valuable each side of the exchange is to maximize the potential payoff.

    For example, if you spent a year of your life doing the research and living the experiences that led you to write this eBook, asking for just a first name and an email address, or asking for $0.99 isn’t going to justify your work. On the other hand, if you invested a minimum in your original research, it isn’t fair to ask your customers for pages of personal information or $29.99.

    There are two good ways to do this. The first is through research—take a look at your competition and see what they’re offering, and what they’re asking for in exchange. Use this comparatively to settle on the value of your own offers and requests.

    The second is through experience. Experiment with different price levels and forms of content to see which prices and offers “stick.”

    Previewing the Content

    Most users won’t be satisfied with your promise that the content they’re about to receive is good enough to make the exchange. They need some kind of proof, or preview. At the same time, you don’t want to give away the secret sauce.

    The solution is to give your users a tease—tell them what types of things they’re going to find in the body of your content, but don’t tell them the exact things they’re going to find. Take a look at how HubSpot handles this, identifying some of the quote contributors without giving away the actual quotes:

    101 Awesome Marketing Quotes

    (Image Source: HubSpot)

    In-Content Calls-to-Action

    The third pillar of content-conversion relationships is probably the most important, as it directly affects your conversion rate in any context, rather than affecting only your inbound traffic figures or being limited to one application. The goal here is to include CTAs within the body of your onsite content, which is already doubling as a means of increasing search visibility and generating inbound traffic.

    In some ways, these CTAs are like any other; they need to be short, compelling, accurate, and persuasive. However, if you want to retain the value and appeal of your content as is, you can’t go the traditional advertising approach in total.

    Take Crazy Egg’s traditional advertisement as an example:

    crazy egg ad

    (Image Source: Crazy Egg/Wordstream)

    This is a good example of an effective CTA, but it’s still an advertisement. This makes the CTA almost confrontational—pinning a user down with a pitch, and forcing them to either convert or depart. Instead, content-based CTAs are softer, and hinge on trust that you’ve already built with the quality and usefulness of your material.

    Topic Selection

    The first hurdle to overcome in maximizing the conversion potential of your content is to choose the right topics. At a glance, this means selecting content topics within your area of expertise that your target market would find useful. For example, if you sell skateboards, it wouldn’t make sense to write content about the best types of office furniture for a startup. It would instead cater to individuals who might be in the market for a new skateboard, covering topics like “how to repair a broken axle” or the even-more-blunt, “how to choose your next skateboard.”

    Try not to make your topics too sales-y, or it will turn people away. Buyer’s guides and product comparison articles are helpful, but if that’s all you put out, people will gradually feel alienated from you. Provide helpful, original material that a prospective buyer might read. Know your sales cycle inside and out, and target people at multiple stages to nurture them to a conversion.

    Three Main Approaches

    Once you’ve properly identified the right types of topics, you’re essentially halfway done with the battle. You’ll have a stream of optimal customer candidates reading your content. Now, your job is to guide them to a successful conversion. You can’t just stick a CTA in the middle of your article, so you have to use a subtler, more tactical approach.

    There are three main approaches to in-content CTAs.

    • The redirect. The redirect encourages users to head to a different section of the site. It doesn’t contain any pitch by itself, but instead compels a reader to discover content that does the “pitching” on another section of the site. For example, let’s say you’re an HR consultant, and you have a dedicated landing page that explains what you do and asks users for personal information. In the body of one of your articles, you may include a reference to something like “this is just one of the many services an HR consultant can offer you,” with a link to your full list of services. Or you might be more direct with a straightforward request like, “for more information, check out my contact page.” This is advantageous because it keeps the primary focus on the value of your content, rather than on the sales pitch, but disadvantageous because it delays the customer’s point of conversion.
    • The casual mention. The casual mention is a discreet way to offer up one of your products or services in the body of your article. For example, if you sell clothing and you’re writing about this year’s biggest fashion trends, you can mention some of your top selling products, along with prices, as a kind of mini-sales-pitch. The same can work for B2B companies; for example, you can write something like, “link building is essential for SEO success, but you may need to hire an agency like AudienceBloom to execute the work professionally.” This is a harder sell, but it still doesn’t deviate far from the core of the article.
    • The sales pitch. The sales pitch is essentially a mini advertisement, usually at the end of the article, that only loosely connects to the body of the article and instead focuses on getting the customer to a point of conversion. For example, at the end of an article on “X common skateboard repairs,” you could have a section with text like, “When you skate, you want the best. Our company offers top-of-the-line skateboards in al styles to make sure you perform your best.” Its weakness is that it deviates from the central value of your content, but it also makes a harder sell.

    Since each of these approaches has distinct advantages and disadvantages, I encourage you to use all three of them in rotation to maximize your potential payoff. If you notice one style outperforming the others, don’t be afraid to switch. Remember, your main priority here is to provide excellent content—if you have a great CTA embedded in an iffy, poorly written article, it isn’t going to land.

    Similarly, you can’t just post a link and hope people will click. Your wording needs to be sharp, concise, compelling, and accurate—like any CTA—if you want your readers to convert.

    Optimization and Improvement

    You don’t have to be satisfied with your traffic, or your conversion rates. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that your first-draft strategy isn’t going to earn you the best possible results. The only way to improve your campaign is to take careful measurements of your most important metrics, make iterative changes, and then evaluate to see whether or not your changes were effective. Just be careful how you measure and report the differences—you never know how your biases may be affecting how you perceive the results.

    One of the best ways to do this is through ongoing A/B testing. The basic premise of an A/B test is to create nearly identical scenarios, with one small difference between them, to see if one scenario outperforms the other. For example, you might write two highly similar articles with very different CTAs to see if one CTA performs better than the other. You can use this information to maximize the return on your future pieces.

    AB Testing

    (Image Source: VWO)

    You can change virtually anything and see a potential difference, but here’s a short list of ideas for your variables:

    • Content topics, lengths, and target audience. The nature of your content will have a huge bearing on the type of audience who reads your material and their disposition by the time they get to your CTA. Don’t rule out the possibility of targeting a different audience altogether, and look to your competition to get inspiration for new content angles.
    • Syndication channels and framing. There are hundreds of possible channels for you to distribute your content, each with different audience segments and different advantages and disadvantages. Get to know them, and experiment with different channels and angles to maximize your inbound content value.
    • Content previews. This is exclusively for using content as a basis for exchange, but experiment with providing different previews for your offered material.
    • Types of calls-to-action used. Rotate between redirects, casual mentions, and full-blown pitches. You may find that different angles work better for different applications, or that one in particular is ideal for your niche.
    • Wording of calls-to-action used. Of course, you should also experiment with the copy you use in the body of your content to call out your products and services. Tiny differences, sometimes only a word or two, can make the difference. It also pays to change up the language so regular readers don’t get tired of the same message at the end of every piece.

    Think of your content-based conversion strategy as a constant, revolving experiment. The more ways you tinker with it, the more you’ll learn, and the better performance rate you’ll eventually earn.

    Conclusion

    The two variables that affect your total number of conversions are your total inbound traffic and your overall conversion rate. Content, if you know how to wield it, has the potential to influence both. By leveraging the power of content for SEO, offsite reputation building, and social syndication, you’ll maximize your inbound traffic streams. Offering content as part of the conversion exchange can aid your conversion rates on landing pages and specific callouts, while in-content CTAs are your best bet in other applications. In any case, the more you invest in your strategy with quality, focus, research, and ongoing development, the better your content can support your overall conversion goals.

  6. 7 Strategies to Leverage Hummingbird and Related Topics

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    Let’s not kid ourselves; Hummingbird is amazing. It’s an algorithm that took Google’s basic keyword-based structure and turned it into something intuitive and more capable of linguistic understanding than most people you’ll ever meet. Now, Google can, for lack of a better phrase, guess what you’re thinking and give you the content that matches your intentions—even if none of your keywords are an exact match for the most relevant results.

    Similarly, RankBrain and other additions have allowed Google to come up with “related questions” and an advanced network of related topics to discern user intent from ambiguous queries, and provide links to helpful related information that similar searchers have required in the past.

    related questions google results

    (Image Source: Moz)

    So how can you take advantage of Hummingbird and related topics in your own content marketing campaign?

    1. Get specific. General topics aren’t going to cut it anymore. The more specific you get with your material, the more likely you’ll be to show up. If a user is searching for general information on a general subject, with a query like “maple trees,” they’re either going to get an immediate Knowledge Graph entry that gives them a breakdown of the subject, or they’ll get referred to a Wikipedia article. On the other hand, extremely specific queries with specific intents will have almost no competition, giving you the advantage when it comes to ranking. Search for specific topics, and write for specific audiences while you’re at it.
    2. Publish interrelated content features. Don’t post single instances of the topics you’re exploring; instead, develop them into a series of related features. For example, instead of just writing about “How to clean an air conditioner,” write that article and follow it up with, “how to repair an air conditioner that won’t run,” or “how to improve the lifespan of an air conditioner.” All of these questions are related topics, so you’ll stand to gain in two key ways. First, you’ll be seen as a greater authority in this space, and second, you’ll have a higher likelihood of showing up in “related questions” for users interested in these subjects.
    3. Go deeper with your content. This is an easy strategy, but it’s one you should have been doing a long time ago. When taking advantage of Hummingbird, thin content isn’t going to cut it. Hummingbird does a thorough evaluation of the phrases and details within the entire body of your content—the more details you include, and the more subtopics and related ideas you cover, the better the algorithm will be able to “understand” your work. It’s also a best practice for content in general—it makes you stand out from the crowd, gives people more information to peruse, and shows that you’ve done your research thoroughly.
    4. Check out Related Questions. Where better to learn how Google categorizes different topics than on Google itself? Run a sample search for a query related to some of your recent content, and see what pops up in the “related questions” section. Who’s covering those topics now? How are they covering them? Look for any opportunity to cover one of these related topics with your own work in the future, and try to capitalize on any weaknesses you see in the work that currently shows up for these queries.
    5. Forget about keywords (mostly). Keywords aren’t dead—at least not entirely. Even though Google isn’t using keywords on a strict, one-to-one basis, they can be good contextual clues for the subjects of your work. Keep keyword research as an element of your SEO campaign—take a look to see what keywords have the highest volume and the lowest competition rating, and include the most promising candidates throughout your work. However, stay away from picking content topics based solely on your keyword research, and as always, never stuff keywords into your content.
    6. Diversify your vocabulary. With more users relying on casual queries and vocal search, the range of vocabulary in user queries has expanded and become much more conversational. If you want your content to be indexed thoroughly, and for subjects peripherally related to your main targets, you’ll do well to diversify the type of vocabulary you use. Part of that means having a bigger list of potential keywords to target, and part of that means avoiding using the same phrases or terminologies over and over again. Shake things up!
    7. See what your competitors are up to. This is another strategy that’s good to adopt in general, but especially useful in the context of Hummingbird and semantic search. Take a look to see what types of content your competitors are publishing, and which pieces seem to be getting the best results. Are there any related topics that they aren’t taking advantage of, such as follow-up opportunities, alternative positions, or expansions? These could be a good way to get a competitive edge, especially since you already know the root subject has been popular with your shared demographics.

    Google’s search algorithm is now too sophisticated for any kind of measurable, predictable, one-to-one gain. That is to say, you’ll never be able to calculate, on paper, the potential visibility for one of your content ideas. However, by employing these tactics (in addition to standard content and SEO best practices), you’ll stand to benefit more from Google’s semantic understanding and desire to provide users with comprehensive information.

  7. How to Write Clearer, Simpler, and Faster in Any Niche

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    No matter what industry you’re in or who your target demographics are, a powerful writing style will take your brand to the next level. For most modern online brands, this means using a combination of strong copy on your website and traditional ads as well as developing an ongoing content marketing strategy with a blog and peripheral content materials. As general advice goes, the better the content strategy, the happier your customers will be.

    There are dozens of ways to make your content strategy better, including doing better research, knowing your demographics more intimately, and including more multimedia content in your strategy; these would all serve as interesting, separate topics. Today I want to focus on three critical writing skills that apply to everyone, in any niche: clarity, simplicity, and efficiency.

    Clearer, Simpler, and Faster

    Why these three specific qualities of writing? Let’s break this down.

    The effectiveness of your content strategy is going to depend on dozens of interrelated factors. But what does it mean to be effective? It means communicating your message in a way that makes sense for your audience, and earning a positive ROI while doing so. Choosing the right audience and choosing the right message are both important, but they don’t have much to do with your writing style, or the literal process of writing.

    When it comes to the actual writing process, much depends on the industry and format—for example, a BuzzFeed-style post in the news industry might require different techniques than menu descriptions for a local donut shop. Based on this fact and the eliminative process I used above, I can think of three main categories of factors that influence the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of your approach.

    • Writing clearer is about getting your message across as completely as possible. This means diminishing the opportunities for misinterpretation and leaving “no stone unturned” when it comes to the thoroughness of your work.
    • Writing simpler is about conciseness. With decreasing attention spans and increasing competition for content, the winning articles tend to be those who pack the most amount of punch in the smallest amount of space.
    • Writing faster is about producing more, higher quality work in a shorter amount of time and with a smaller degree of effort. Over time, this will result in fewer expenditures (both time and money) and earn you a higher ROI overall.

    Tailoring Advice to Your Niche

    The advice I dispense throughout this article will apply, in principle, to any business’s content marketing strategy in any niche. Taken at face value, they’ll be applicable to straightforward forms of content (such as blogs, whitepapers, and eBooks), and much of it can be applied to other forms of content, such as personal emails, social media posts, or even web copy.

    However, it’s important for you to realize that every business and every niche is different, and that you may need to make some adjustments to make this work for your brand. For example, if your brand voice is casual and informal, striving for too much conciseness could make you come across as stuffy or unapproachable. Similarly, while clarity is always a good thing, the type of clarity you need may depend on your audience—for example, if your demographics are expressly familiar with your industry, you’ll need to explain fewer terms and get to your main points faster.

    With those caveats out of the way, let’s take a look at the ways you can make your writing better all-around.

    Clarity

    Clear writing is writing that communicates all of your intentions with as few ambiguities and as many details as possible. It’s not a new phenomenon; companies have been striving for better clarity for decades, and it’s always been a part of academia.

    Clear Writing

    (Image Source: Hubspot)

    You could just strive to “write clearer,” but that isn’t a specific or actionable strategy. Instead, let’s take a look at specific ways you can increase the clarity of your writing.

    Front-Loading

    Front-loading is the process of including more relevant information earlier on in your writing. It’s important for several reasons, and manifests in multiple different ways. For example, you can front-load an entire article by putting your most relevant information in the headline of your piece, or you can front-load a single sentence by leveraging the most useful and/or necessary information in your first few words. Why do this?

    • Attention. Your readers’ attention spans are short, valuable, and fragile. Many of them will only skim over your article, but almost all of them will catch the earliest information in your headline, intro, paragraphs, and sentences. Front-loading takes advantage of this, and gets your message to the greatest possible number of people.
    • Context. Writing is a process of introduction and clarification; just as this sentence illustrates, your job is to introduce a topic and then explain how or why it’s relevant. Introducing your main point earlier gives readers a grounding of context before they move on to your examples.
    • Memory. Introducing your valuable information earlier on gives you a chance to strengthen the overall memorability of your message, especially if you repeat that message tastefully in the rest of your work.

    The most important opportunities for front-loading exist in your headlines, sub-headers, and topic sentences.

    Organization

    The organization of your article is also necessary to communicate your points clearly. Again, there are a number of reasons for this.

    A casual reader or skimmer will be able to browse the article from a distance and pick out precisely the information he/she needs with minimal effort. In-depth readers will appreciate the logical flow of one idea to the next. During the writing process, it can even help you flesh out some of your most important ideas. Take a look at how the simple topic breakdown of the Wikipedia page for the Beatles immediately makes the long, complex page more decipherable and approachable:

    Wikipedia

    (Image Source: Wikipedia)

    This should be your goal, though you don’t need to have a strict table of contents like this. Throughout your article, you’ll want to hit on the main points of organization quality:

    • Logical transitions. Don’t include points randomly, and don’t use non-sequiturs to jump from one topic to another. Even a casual reader should be able to identify why your sections exist as they do, and feel comfortable shifting from one to the other.
    • Deliberate order. If you can rearrange the list of sub-topics you present in your article, you’ve probably done something wrong. There should be a meaningful and deliberate order to your sub-sections, even if that just means including your most valuable points at the end of the article.
    • Framing. Your introduction and conclusion are the most powerful parts of your article; use them wisely.

    This should be one of the first things you accomplish for your article, since you can do it during the outline process and it basically dictates everything else in your piece.

    Formatting

    The formatting of your article can also lend some serious clarity to your piece overall. Though some elements of formatting and organization are somewhat interchangeable, there is a truly significant distinction; organization refers to your choice and order of broad topics, while formatting refers to how you present those topics in a visual format.

    For example, breaking up your content into paragraphs of related, short sentences is far better than leaving your audience exhausted with long, rambling blocks of text. Similarly, bulleted and numbered lists offer concise, punctuated items that represent or verify your arguments, and using bold and italics can help you make certain elements of your sentences stand out.

    Formatting serves two important functions; it gives skimmers a chance to get the gist of your article, and gives other readers a “recap” that helps them return to and better understand a given section. With this in mind, your biggest job in formatting is making sure you select the best parts of your content to emphasize.

    Specificity

    Even topics that offer well-organized subtopics and decent formatting can fall victim to ambiguity if you don’t offer enough specific information to your readers. “Specific” here can mean a few different things, so I’ll explore them.

    First, specific means deliberate. Your word choices have a powerful effect on how your content is interpreted, so be choosy and only use the words that communicate your ideas best. A perfect example of this is the difference between passive voice, which uses indirect references, and active voice, which uses direct references:

    passive and active voices

    (Image Source: Writing Commons)

    Notice how all the passive phrases sound clunky and awkward, and how most of them make you think, if even for an extra second, to fully understand the phrase. The active phrase counterparts are much more straightforward and accessible.

    Second, specific means precise. Don’t use vague words or generalities when you can substitute highly targeted words and phrases for them. For example, don’t say “a lot of companies” when you could substitute something like “80 percent of companies.” Even if you don’t have access to this data, you can use more specific terms like “the majority of companies I’ve worked with” or “most B2B companies.” Leave no room for misinterpretation.

    Illustrations

    The human mind is programmed for abstract thought; it’s easier for us to think in metaphors, illustrations, comparisons, and ideas than it is to think in words and numbers. While improving the specificity of your writing is important, it only appeals to the “words and numbers” part of the brain. If you want to make your ideas as clear as possible, you need to appeal to that intuitive, abstract part as well.

    The best way to do this is with illustrations. You can take this literally and include things like charts and diagrams in the body of your work, but don’t underestimate the value of a good metaphor. For example, Einstein’s theory of general relativity is mathematically complex and almost inaccessible to the average person, but as soon as you liken the curvature of spacetime in the presence of massive objects to a bowling ball warping a taut rubber sheet, it starts to make sense.

    Don’t worry about the details here; your illustrations are not meant to be taken literally, nor are they going to be the only means your audience has of understanding your ideas. Instead, think of them as a complementary service, like condiments at a hot dog stand.

    Simplicity

    Next, we move onto simplicity. There’s significant overlap between clarity and simplicity, since the clearest writing is often simple by default. However, these are independent ideas, and if you want your content to be as effective as possible, you’ll need to simplify your message drastically.

    Take a look at this ad from Dove:

    Dove Ad

    (Image Source: Coull)

    This ad actually sacrifices some clarity by refusing to elaborate on the details of its intentions. Instead, a simple pairing of words is enough to convey the powerful idea behind this campaign—and that makes it all the more effective.

    Just as long, rambling jokes often fail to be as clever as basic one-liners, simple content outperforms weighty content almost every time. How can you accomplish this for your own writing?

    Focus

    First, make sure your focus is in the right place. You should have a clear goal for your article, even if it’s a “general” topic, or one that wanders to several different areas. Do this: try and reduce your entire article to a single sentence, or a single point that you’re trying to make. If you can’t do it, your article might be too broad, or you might need to find a way to make an argument, rather than just blindly stating facts.

    Once you have this, consider it your “keystone.” Theoretically, every word of your article should in some way point back to this keystone statement. Every sentence should either present, illustrate, or confirm a point that eventually leads back to your overall argument—if it doesn’t, it probably doesn’t need to be there.

    You can also create “keystones” for each of your sub-sections, or even each of your paragraphs. Doing so will help you stay focused and avoid deviating from the most important parts of your content.

    Strong Words

    There are over one million words in the English language. If you’re spewing thoughts from the top of your head, chances are you’re not coming up with the best possible choices and combinations. You don’t have to agonize over every word in your article, but making even a handful of simple swaps can make your content simpler and more elegant.

    For example, which is more appealing to you as a reader: “The CEO’s mistake was an especially bad one, and because he made it, there were a number of serious consequences for the company” or “The CEO’s egregious mistake was devastating for the company.” Most would select the latter as being simpler and more effective, partially due to using stronger descriptive words, and partially due to cutting out the fluff (which I’ll touch on momentarily). Don’t be afraid to consult a thesaurus, as long as you double check to ensure you’re using each new word appropriately.

    Moving On

    With the knowledge that long-form content tends to attract more shares and links than their shot-form counterparts, many businesses have exhausted themselves trying to beef up every section of their content. However, you don’t need to do this—and you probably shouldn’t.

    When you expand the individual sections of your article, your goal should be completing your point fully and efficiently. As soon as you’ve reached a definitive conclusion, it’s time to move on to the next section. This will prevent you from providing too many examples (yes, it is a thing), rambling for too long, or obscuring your original point with unnecessary additions.

    There’s no easy way to tell when your section is complete, other than by judging your content compared to your original point. Have you given your readers everything they need to get your main takeaway? If so, leave it at that.

    Cutting the Fluff

    Everyone writes fluff, whether they realize it or not. It’s a natural human tendency; our word selection processes aren’t perfect, and even if they were, we’d still often write or speak too fast for our perfectionistic selection processes to keep up. As a result, we write filler words, filler sentences, and include unnecessary modifiers in our work.

    These aren’t inherently damaging, since they aren’t detracting from your main point. However, they can obscure your main point by making it harder to find (a “diamond in the rough” effect), and if you include enough of them, they’ll bring the value per word of your content down, possibly reducing your readers’ perceptions of your content value overall.

    This effect manifests in a handful of ways. Redundancy is one of the most common offenders (using synonyms or repeating your meaning in other words), and while it won’t kill your meaning, it will make your work seem sloppy and unpolished:

    Repetitive Words

    (Image Source: Writing Commons)

    Other forms of “fluff” include meaningless modifiers like “a lot,” or “very,” and extended definitions of concepts that require only a concise description.

    Again, we all write fluff, so it’s hard to simply stop writing it. Instead of avoiding it, let it come out naturally and try not to overthink it. Then, when your draft is finished, you can go back and edit your material. Look at your work on a sentence-by-sentence level and ask yourself, “is this a necessary phrase? Is this a necessary word?” You’ll find more fluff than you bargained for, but over time you’ll naturally become a more concise writer.

    Efficiency

    While clarity and simplicity are about making sure your writing is effective in delivering a message, efficiency is about making sure your writing is worth the effort you put into it. To put it bluntly, the less time you spend on a knockout piece, the more return on your investment (ROI) it’s going to yield.

    The massive caveat to this is that your content must be high-quality. Never sacrifice the quality of your content to save time or money.

    With that out of the way, there are general “efficiency” strategies you can use to make yourself a more productive person in general, or “hack” your mind to becoming more focused and more alert. For example, you can turn off your message notifications to zero in on your most important work.

    Email Icon iPhone

    (Image Source: Specialmompreneurs)

    I’m not going to get into these strategies. There are plenty of articles on the subject, including ones I’ve written (linked above). Instead, I want to focus on strategies that will exclusively help you become a better, more efficient writer—helping you produce more work in less time without sacrificing any of your quality.

    Collecting a Team

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, good marketing is a team sport. If you have trouble coming up with ideas, get a few of your coworkers to chip in a few topic ideas. If you have lots of ideas, but can’t pick a good one, ask your coworkers for feedback. Fill your staff with other writers and marketers who know your demographics and know your brand—they’ll be able to help you come up with new directions and perfect your approaches. Even five minutes of someone’s time is often enough to help you break through a plateau you’ve encountered on your own.

    Additionally, don’t be afraid to reach outside your company. Talk to peers, influencers, partners, and mentors within your industry and those who share similar content goals. Mingling like this will help you avoid “stale” ideas, and will give you enough inspiration to keep moving through even the toughest episodes of writer’s block.

    Setting Up a Research Stream

    Most content marketers will tell you that the vast majority of their work comes in the research and planning phase; once they’ve collected all the information they need to create a good post, the actual writing process is somewhat simple. Therefore, reducing the amount of time it takes to research will definitively reduce the total time to write any given article.

    How can you do this without just decreasing the amount of research you do?

    Create ongoing streams of research and habits that keep your reading list full and your mind topped off with potential ideas. For starters, sign up for a blog reader app like Feedly, and select publishers and industries that are relevant to your brand. You’ll get top headlines to read every morning, which you can turn into an ongoing research habit. Take notes on topics that interest you and set them aside if you want to develop them in the future; it only takes a few minutes per day, but soon you’ll end up with more ready-to-go research than you know what to do with.

    You can also create research streams on social media, with your coworkers (see previous section), or in your company’s research department—the key is to start getting these topics and data automatically, so you can spare yourself the trouble of seeking it out manually.

    Always Be Writing

    Don’t think of writing as something you sit down to do for X number of hours, to stop only once the article is complete. Instead, try adapting your mind to write on a constant basis. Think through your spoken sentences as if you were drafting them, self-editing for clarity and simplicity, and when you’re stuck in traffic, or you’re out for a walk, let your mind brainstorm about possible topics.

    This open brainstorming will help you find better ways of communicating, and will help you explore new ideas at a leisurely pace, rather than trying to forcefully extract them all at once in a single session. Plus, you’ll get the perks of better communication in other areas of your life.

    Developing a Routine

    While writing is an area where new experiences and new perspectives can introduce new ideas and angles to your work, it also pays to develop a routine. Every day, you should start by reviewing some news and research, and every time you start a new article, you should have a repeatable process for how to do so effectively. This won’t happen all at once; you’ll encounter strategies that consistently work and strategies that consistently fail. Only by adjusting them and building a better overall process will you be able to consistently produce better material at a faster pace.

    The Assembly Line

    This is one example of a routine, or repeatable process you can use to write faster. It doesn’t work for everybody, nor is it guaranteed to help you write faster or better, but it does make the process more streamlined when you start managing lots of pieces at once.

    There are many stages of the content development process; research, outlining, drafting, polishing, publishing, and syndicating. Rather than following this sequence for every available piece, try to operate as an assembly line for greater efficiency; do all the research for all your posts, then all the outlining, then all the drafting, and so on. You could even delegate certain stages of this process to individuals of your team who excel at them, divvying up the process like a real assembly line.

    Bringing It All Together

    If you start implementing all (or most) of the strategies I’ve covered in this guide, I guarantee your writing will become clearer, simpler, and faster—I just can’t guarantee that it will come all at once. Like with the development of any skill, writing improvement takes time, and you’ll run into some obstacles along the way. Try to think of these recommendations as a loose guide for development, rather than a rigid checklist or dogmatic list of rules. Through trial and error, you’ll learn to apply them to your niche and your own personal style in a way that maximizes your efficiency, and at the end of it, you’ll walk away with more powerful pieces of content in every form you publish.

  8. Hidden Biases in Reporting Metrics You Need to Avoid

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    Human beings aren’t perfect thinkers. We like to imagine ourselves as logical, straightforward problem solvers, but the reality is, most of the time we’re afflicted with hidden biases and misconceptions that completely skew our interpretations of even the most objective data. When we look at a set of data, or observe something in its natural environment, we form concrete judgments that then shape our interactions with those items. And from a practical standpoint, we’re good at it; the human brain has evolved to detect patterns easily as a survival mechanism.

    This mechanism is oversensitive and flawed, resulting many of the biases I’m about to go over. In our everyday lives, they might not bear much impact, but in the realm of marketing and advertising, objective data is crucial. If these biases are affecting your interpretations of otherwise objective data sets, you could wind up presenting faulty information to your clients, or worse, adjusting your campaign to grow in the wrong direction.

    Why Bias Compensation Matters

    Fortunately, you don’t have to become a slave to your biases. There’s no way to reprogram your brain and avoid them altogether, but there are strategies you can put into place to make it harder for these biases to affect your work. Think of it as a kind of handicapping or adjustment system; for example, if you know the wind is blowing to the east on the golf course, you might align your shot to the west of where you want the ball to actually go. This doesn’t eliminate the wind as a factor, but it does help you get the results you need with only a minor adjustment. Otherwise, your shot will end up blowing far to the east of where you need it to land.

    There’s one big problem with this golf metaphor, and that’s the fact that you’ll realize your shot is off course once you complete it; in the marketing realm, if you interpret your metrics incorrectly, you may never learn this fact.

    Take a look at this optical illusion as an effective demonstration of how bias can mess with your mind:

    illusion

    (Image Source: Nerdist)

    Compare the center square of the side panel to the center square of the top panel. Most people will argue that the side square appears to be a bright orange, while the top square appears to be a dull brown. If I stopped writing here, many of you would continue to believe that.

    However, the reality is that both squares are exactly the same color. If you cover up the surrounding colored squares, which trick your brain into overcompensating for lighting conditions, you’ll see this to be true. This process is the kind of “bias correction” I’m talking about; without it, you’ll end up misinterpreting your data, but with it, you can come to a more accurate conclusion.

    Types of Biases

    There are two types of biases I’m going to cover in this guide, though the second isn’t technically a “bias” in the formal definition. Both can have a dramatic effect on how you see and interpret data, so you’ll need to account for both whenever you measure or report metrics for a given campaign.

    • Cognitive Biases. The first type is classic cognitive biases. These are inherent in the vast majority of the population, though they offer differing degrees of influence depending on the individual and the scenario. Think of these as situations that exploit natural, otherwise valuable processes in the brain; in the color example above, it’s a good thing that our brains can naturally account for the presence of light and shadow. However, it results in skewed perceptions. The same applies to the following example—which line is shorter?

    cognitive biases

    (Image Source: Brain Bashers)

    There are countless sub-types of biases, and I’ll be exploring some of the most relevant for modern marketers.

    • Misconceptions and Misinterpretations. I also consider it a kind of bias that leads us to misinterpret the true “meaning” of a metric. Thanks to modern technology, we have access to far more data than we would have thought possible just a decade ago. That doesn’t mean that every data point has a clear definition, or that it’s easy to understand. Many similar metrics share similar names, but offer very distinct views on your campaign. Similarly, one miscommunication between team members can lead to very different interpretations of the same idea:

    customer expectations

    (Image Source: Connexin)

    Let’s start by taking a look at some of the most common cognitive biases that can affect your interpretation of metrics.

    Cognitive Biases

    This list is not comprehensive; there are a startling number of cognitive biases that can affect your reasoning, social behavior, and even your memory. However, I’ve captured the majority of biases that can affect how your mind finds, dissects, and interprets marketing results. In each subsection, I’ll describe the bias and detail strategies you can use to compensate for it.

    Confirmation Bias

    First up is confirmation bias, one of the most commonly recognized cognitive biases. This phenomenon holds that once an individual has settled on a specific belief, they will seek out and/or favor any information that leads them to “confirm” that belief, and avoid and/or demerit any information that contradicts that belief. For example, take the strange dress that became a sensation over social media a while back:

    strange dress

    (Image Source: LinkedIn)

    The center picture is the original, with the two on either side showcasing the dress with different lighting and filters. The middle pic generated responses describing it as either gold and white or blue and black. Users that encountered one definition often saw the dress as being those colors, not realizing that the visual information in the photo was ambiguous.

    In the context of a marketing campaign, this can happen when you’ve pre-formed a conclusion about one of your strategies. For example, you might assume that your new content strategy is doing well because you’ve invested a lot of time and money into it. You might then only look at data points that confirm this assumption; let’s say you’re getting a lot more comments and sparking new conversations. But you might ignore or overlook contradictory data points, such as lower organic traffic numbers.

    To compensate for this, select which metrics you’ll measure to determine success before you even flesh out a strategy. Then, remain consistent with this set of metrics and remain as objective as possible in their analysis—even if the numbers contradict your instincts.

    Selection Bias

    The selection bias is usually relegated to surveys, which depend on an ample, random sample of participants in order to be considered unbiased and effective. A selection bias would be some improper procedure that led to a pool of participants slanting the results in one direction or another. For example, if you only interview people in Idaho for a national-level survey, you’re going to receive answers that disproportionately represent an Idaho resident.

    If you’re conducting surveys for your marketing campaign (such as gathering data about your audience’s content preferences), the possible effects here are obvious—if you select a narrow or skewed pool of participants, your data will be inherently unreliable. But this also applies to data you might pull in Google Analytics.

    For example, if you’re poking around to different sections, you might find that your “general” traffic visits an average of three internal pages before leaving. From this, you could form the conclusion that your site is effective at enticing people further in—but what about just your social traffic? If your social visitors often bounce after the first page, it could be an indication that your blog posts (or other social links) aren’t as effective at piquing that curiosity.

    Anchoring                                                               

    The anchoring effect has everything to do with what you encounter before encountering a certain event (or in this case, a certain metric). Because our minds are wired for comparisons, whenever we hear a numerical value, we instantly compare future numerical values to it—even if those numbers are completely unrelated.

    Take a look at the following cartoon as an example:

    the anchoring effect

    (Image Source: Wealth Informatics)

    Both participants are essentially generating random numbers—the last digits of their SSNs. When asked what they’d estimate for an identical bottle of wine, the person with the higher number will generally estimate it to be a higher value.

    This can happen in your metrics reporting, too. For example, let’s say you recently read an article that boasted a 300 percent improvement in ROI after making a simple change to a marketing campaign. If you notice a 30 percent growth rate in your own traffic, you might think it’s pretty low. Conversely, if you hear someone complain about a terribly low conversion rate—like a fraction of a percent—that 30 percent growth figure might start looking pretty good.

    Irrational Escalation

    Irrational escalation, sometimes known as escalation of commitment, is a bias that has less to do with how you report or interpret metrics, and more about what you do with your conclusions from there. Under this bias, individuals have a greater likelihood of taking some strong action if they’ve taken some related weak action in the past.

    The typical example is the “dollar auction” game, in which a one-dollar bill is auctioned off before a group. Anybody can bid any amount they want for the dollar. At the end of the game, the winner gets the one-dollar bill for whatever amount they bid for it, but there’s one twist—the second-place finisher must pay his/her final bid to the auctioneer without getting the dollar in return. Invariably, bids escalate far beyond the dollar value of the one-dollar bill; this is because once you’re committed to a certain idea, or a certain strategy, it’s easy to incrementally invest just “a little bit more,” even if it becomes irrational at some point.

    What’s the practical takeaway here? Let’s say you’ve invested in a certain marketing strategy for many months now, and you’ve seen decent results, but the past few months have been slow to the point that you’re barely breaking even on it. The irrational escalation bias would have you continue investing in it, since you’ve already come this far, even if there is no proof of future benefits. The only way to defeat this bias is to weigh the pros and cons of each strategy, even the ones you’re used to, with objective, preferably numerical evidence.

    The Overconfidence Effect

    All of us are desperately and irredeemably overconfident. I’m not talking about your self-esteem or your comfort levels in various social situations; I’m talking about your tendency to estimate your own perceptions. Everyone believes they are better than average at making decisions and answering questions, in almost any scenario.

    Because of this, marketers often believe they know more about data analysis than they actually do, and believe themselves to be better decision makers than they actually are. What happens is this: a marketer will look at the data, form a conclusion about it, and then stick with that conclusion without exploring any other possibilities. In general, there are too many unknowns for any one definitive conclusion to hold.

    To compensate for this, bring more minds into your analysis and discussion. Each person will be overconfident about his/her own analytical ability, but together, you’ll be able to make up for each other’s weaknesses and come to a more uniform conclusion.

    Essentialism

    Essentialism is a complex cognitive bias that permeates our life in profound, and sometimes horrible ways. Its name derives from the root word “essence” because it reflects a natural human tendency to reduce complex topics and ideas down to their barest essence. This is important during the early stages of learning and development, where abstraction is difficult and acquisition is imperative, but later on in life, this gives us the nasty tendency to categorize things, places, and people based on what we know about other things, places, and people. It’s at least partially responsible for stereotypes and prejudices.

    In a far less serious offense, essentialism is also responsible for causing marketers to over-generalize or categorize certain types of metrics. For example, they might believe that bounce rate is inherently “bad” and therefore, bounce rates should always be lower—even though people bouncing might be a good thing if they aren’t a part of your target demographics to begin with.

    There’s no easy way to stop your mind from wandering in this direction, but you can strive for neutrality by treating every metric as having both positive and negative traits; see each metric for what it is without trying to reduce it to a universally “good” or “bad” position. This is especially important for traits relating to user behavior, which is qualitative and at times, unpredictable.

    Optimism Bias

    Optimism Bias

    (Image Source: Masmi)

    I think we all know what optimism bias is like. We’ve all felt it in one application or another, and most of us still experience it throughout our daily lives. No, this has nothing to do with whether you consider yourself an “optimist” or “pessimist” in general—instead, it’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon that applies to most people.

    The biggest effect here is that people inherently believe they are less likely than average to experience bad events, especially if they’re rare. Most people never think they’ll be robbed, or that their house will catch fire, or that they’ll lose their job. But people still do.

    In the marketing world, this usually refers to PR disasters. Most brands never give a second thought to the idea that their social media statistics are tanking because of a foolish comment they made some time earlier, or believe their drop in organic traffic could be because of a serious penalty. The fact is, these things happen, even to smart, well-planned brands and strategies. Don’t count yourself out of the possibility here.

    Group Attribution Errors

    The fundamental group attribution error results when you see the behavior of a single person, and immediately project that person’s traits to the entire group. For example, at a bar you might see a group of people at a nearby table and one of them is particularly obnoxious, yelling and screaming. Many would then immediately assume that the entire group is obnoxious, rather than just the one individual.

    In the reporting sense, this can also apply, depending on how wide your measurements are and whether you use any instances of anecdotal evidence. For example, let’s say you wrote a knockout piece of content and a handful of users took to commenting actively on it. Generally, comments are a good sign that your piece was interesting or valuable enough for your readers to engage with, but can you make this assumption for the entire group, or was it just a handful of weirdos who you happened to snag?

    This isn’t to say that small population samples are inherently useless—they can be valuable, and they can represent the whole. What’s important to remember is that they don’t always represent the whole, and you need to compensate for this by looking at bigger samples.

    meme

     

    (Image Source: The Rad Group)

    The bottom line for most of these biases is that you shouldn’t take anything at face value, or trust your instincts too much. Most of your instincts are based on evolutionarily advantageous cognitive functions, which means when it comes to the logic and math of statistical analysis, our minds can’t be trust. Treat everything with a secondary degree of scrutiny.

    Misconceptions and Misinterpretations

    As if all those cognitive biases weren’t enough, there are cases where we don’t even define our metrics accurately. Forget confirmation bias—if you’re looking at one metric thinking it’s another, your numbers are wrong anyway. This section is designed to clear up some of the most common points of confusion for web traffic and social media metrics, but make no mistake—this is far from comprehensive. You owe it to yourself to double check your interpretation of every metric you measure; even one differing word can compromise an entire construct.

    Google Analytics

    Google Analytics is free, easy to navigate, and reliable, but that doesn’t mean it’s always straightforward. Take a look at some of the discrepancies you might find here.

    • Bounce rate and exit rate. If you try to think about it conceptually, bounce rate and exit rate sound identical. They’re even right next to each other on Analytics’s default dashboard, but as you can see below, they can be very different. Basically, the exit rate only applies to users for whom the page in question was the last of their session. Bounce rate refers to users for whom the page in question was the first and only of their session.

    bounce and exit rate

    • Visitors, visits, and page views. What’s the difference between a visit and a page view? Can you tell me without basically repeating yourself? As it turns out, a “visit” occurs when a user accesses your website from an external URL, and ends when that user is inactive for 30 minutes or more (or if they leave your site). A page view, on the other hand, is counted whenever a person loads—or reloads—a page on your site. Therefore, it’s possible for one experience to count as one visit and multiple views. Visits are also referred to as “sessions.”

    Sessions

    • Segmentation. It’s also easy to misinterpret defined metrics when you’ve segmented your traffic improperly (or haven’t segmented it at all). Sometimes, you’ll want to look at a “general audience,” and other times you’ll want to drill down to something more specific, like users who found you through search or through social media—but it’s important to know the difference. Take a look at how different Direct and Organic traffic results can be:

    Segmentation

    Keyword Rankings

    • Internal traffic. You may also be skewing your numbers by allowing internal traffic to be reported in Google Analytics. Technically, you haven’t misinterpreted the meaning of a metric here, but you might be severely overestimating how many people are actually coming to your site. Fortunately, it’s easy to set up a filter that will keep you from tracking all your coworkers and partners who access the site on a daily basis (but aren’t a part of your target demographics).

    To start, head to the admin tab and select “Filters.”

    Internal Traffic

    This will give you the opportunity to “create” a new filter; there are several filter types to choose from, but usually you’ll want to go for one that filters users based on IP address or ISP information. This will keep Analytics from tracking information from any of the users you specify.

    add filter

    • The numbers game. Finally, remember that numbers are just numbers. Your bounce rate might be high, but that doesn’t mean everyone who left wasn’t interested in your page. Your click-through rates from social might be good, but that doesn’t mean people liked your content. It’s tempting to reduce everything to objective metrics, but important to recognize those objective metrics for what they are.

    Social Media

    Next, there are a few social media metrics that require exploration.

    • Likes (or follows). No matter what platform you’re on, there’s some metric that tells you how many people are interested in your brand. Most brands thrive on this figure, either bragging about how many followers they have or complaining that they need more “likes.” However, don’t let this metric deceive you; it doesn’t accurately reflect how people actually feel toward your brand, which is far more important in the long run.
    • Page Insights. Most social platforms offer page insights, or something similar, which will tell you how many people have seen or clicked through your material. Be careful here; an “impression” doesn’t always correlate with a person actually seeing your post—it just means it populated in their newsfeed. A vague “click” could mean any kind of interaction, even reporting the post. Dig into what these deceptively ambiguous metrics actually mean before drawing any important conclusions from them, and remember, every social platforms is going to be a bit different—that’s why I don’t dig into any specific platform metrics here.

    Page Insights

    (Image Source: Facebook)

    • Engagements. Finally, engagements—such as post likes, shares, and comments, are all important and valuable, but don’t try and reduce them to a purely quantitative value. For example, an article that earns 1,000 shares can be considered to be popular, but this doesn’t reflect how bold an impression it made on the people who shared it—they could have shared it just because of the clever title. Similarly, don’t take comments as a sure indication that these people are fans of your brand, and don’t assume that every “like” means that someone read and enjoyed your piece. Take these engagement metrics with a grain of salt.

    Comparison Errors

    As a general rule, the way you compare metrics to one another holds a lot of power over the conclusions you’ll eventually reach. For example, it’s critically important for you to take “apples to apples” measurements. If you’re going to evaluate your progress in a certain area, you need to replicate your measurement conditions as precisely as possible; for example, if you’re looking at the bounce rate for organic visitors over the course of a month, you can’t compare that to the bounce rate of social visitors over the course of a different month. This is akin to comparing apples to oranges. Allow only one variable between your compared metrics, such as month in question or type of traffic—when you introduce two, the comparison crumbles.

    Communication

    Recognize that your communicative ability has a strong bearing on how others interpret metrics. One wrong or misleading word about how a specific metric should be read could compromise a person’s interpretation of that metric for the foreseeable future. This is especially important with clients; you want them to have the clearest, most objective view possible, so remain diligent and consistent from the beginning to give them the full and accurate picture of your marketing metrics.

    Utility and Value

    There are two important takeaways regarding the utility and value of measurement and analysis I need to address. Thus far, my guide may have you believing that measurements are inherently inaccurate, or that they aren’t worth pursuing, but this is far from the case. Measurement and analysis are crucial if you want your business to stay alive. What truly matters is how you approach them:

    First, your measurements are only worthwhile if they’re objective. And to make things worse, it’s incredibly hard to be objective (as you’ve seen in my list of cognitive biases). If you allow your instincts or your preconceived notions to take over, then your metrics become like a mirror—you only see what you want to see. Data should be a tool for you to answer important questions, not a means of self-affirmation.

    Second, don’t base everything off of numbers. The numbers are objective, that’s true, but thanks to modern technology, there are too many numbers. Data can be manipulated to tell you almost anything, and thanks to human imperfection, it’s practically impossible to ever come up with a completely unbiased, objective conclusion about anything. What’s important here is maintaining a healthy degree of confidence; feel free to use your metrics and numbers to form conclusions, but in the back of your mind should always be a shade of doubt. Analytics aren’t perfect; accept that.

    Final Takeaways

    Though my hope was to create a detailed and valuable guide, I know this is inherently not a comprehensive one. To create a truly comprehensive guide on human bias and the tendency for errors in marketing would require far more resources than I have and, quite possibly, more knowledge about the human mind than we currently hold.

    If there’s one bottom-line takeaway from this guide, it’s this: no matter how reliable your data is, it still requires a human mind for interpretation, and human minds are fallible. You can reduce this fallibility (as you should), but you can’t eliminate it, so instead expect it, compensate for it, and don’t let it compromise your campaign.

  9. How SaaS Companies Can Use Content to Edge Out the Competition

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    You’re a SaaS company, and you’re interested in how content can help you get more sales, earn a higher customer retention rate, and possible improve your overall brand reputation in the process. You’ve heard about content marketing, but you might not know what it takes to build an actual strategy. More importantly, you aren’t sure what other, similar SaaS companies are doing, or what’s expected from you from a baseline content perspective.

    This is the guide for you. Throughout this in-depth, nearly-comprehensive article, I’ll explain the basic tenets and advanced strategies that you need to take your content marketing game to a dominant, competitive level. I’ll include examples, weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each tactic I introduce, and generally guide you to create a content strategy that your competitors simply can’t touch. I’ll do this in four main sections:

    • An introduction, to follow, discussing the general advantages and goals of a SaaS-originated content strategy.
    • A guide on content marketing for non-branded topics and an audience specific to your niche.
    • A guide on help documents and troubleshooting for your current and prospective users.
    • A section on growth and ongoing development to keep your strategy thriving for the long term.

    With that covered, let’s take a look at two major considerations for your content strategy. I’ll dig a little deeper into the benefits and specific tactics to use in each respective section to follow, but to start, it’s important to grasp these principles.

    The Competitive Advantage

    First, there are tons of benefits to a content strategy, but most important (arguably) and the focus of the article are on the competitive advantage. Your close competitors are all itching to poach your users, whether that’s converting new prospects before you do or stealing them away with special offers. If you don’t already have a straight competitor, you will soon. SaaS is a fast-paced, high growth industry, and it’s only getting faster with time:

    Growth of Saas

    (Image Source: Tom Tunguz)

    Staying ahead of your competition means being more visible, being more trusted, being more valuable, and encouraging greater loyalty. If your content marketing strategy is, on the whole, better than your competitors’, you’ll have no trouble achieving all of these.

    A Long-Term Investment

    The second important consideration is that content marketing is a long-term strategy. As you’ll see when I describe the benefits of each pillar of SaaS content, the benefits of content compound over time, growing exponentially especially during the early months of implementation. By comparison, a paid advertising or traditional marketing campaign will net you a positive, yet consistent return:

    Content Marketing

    (Image Source: Stevenson Financial Marketing)

    Accordingly, it takes time to develop, but once you’ve established some early momentum, you’ll see a rising rate return for as long as you continue managing your campaign.

    Two Main Pillars

    With those considerations out of the way, I’d like to present you with the two main pillars you’ll use to establish your content strategy:

    • Ongoing content, or content marketing, will refer to blog posts, articles, whitepapers, eBooks, infographics, and other forms of content that you’ll be publishing onsite and offsite for your users. This will be targeted to both unfamiliar prospective users and current subscribers, and its main purpose will be to provide practical information.
    • FAQ and troubleshooting content will focus on addressing the needs of your current user base in a number of different forms. Its main purpose will be to improve customer understanding of your app and increase customer retention and loyalty.

    Let’s explore each of these in turn.

    Ongoing Content (Content Marketing)

    There are many types of content you can use as part of an ongoing content marketing campaign, so I won’t go to the trouble of listing them. There also aren’t many rules for where you host this content; an onsite blog is a good spot, but don’t neglect offsite opportunities. Remember, your goal here is to outcompete your fellow service offerers, so it’s all about offering something your competitors can’t or won’t. In this section, I’ll go over the principal benefits of ongoing content marketing, keys to success, angles to direct your strategy, and how to get started.

    The Benefits

    These are just some of the benefits you’ll receive—many of which are amplified if you’re able to produce and syndicate content better than the competition.

    • Visibility opportunities and brand awareness. Have you ever heard of Hubspot? Of course you have. Do you know why? Because they have an awesome ongoing content marketing strategy.

    Hubspot Content Marketing Strategy

    (Image Source: Hubspot)

    When you create and distribute great content that people want to read, they’ll naturally happen upon it (by browsing their favorite sites, searching with a relevant query, getting it from a friend, or finding it on social media). Soon, they’ll start noticing your name attached to the work, and your brand visibility will begin to grow.

    • Inbound traffic. Ongoing content is a channel to increase inbound traffic, and from multiple directions. Writing good content targeted toward search user interests, consistently, helps you rise in search ranks, which increases your organic traffic. Syndicating on social media will increase your social traffic. Plus, posting on external sites will boost your referral traffic. Best of all, these effects tend to amplify over time.
    • Brand reputation value. This is especially important in a competitive environment. When you write good content—better content than a user’s ever seen before—you’ll be perceived as the thought leader in the industry. Your reputation as an expert authority will increase, and you’ll earn better conversions and higher customer loyalty as a result.
    • Competitive differentiation. It’s hard to stand out in the SaaS world, especially if your model is similar to another company’s. Content gives you the opportunity to differentiate yourself. Take a look at Kroll’s unique content offerings, which include events and webinars to attend in addition to basic content—you can even submit your own.

    Kroll

    (Image Source: Kroll)

    • Conversions and new subscriptions. Content also gives you a platform to pitch the value of your product (though your primary focus should be on providing valuable information). If executed properly, content can earn you more conversions and subscriptions directly.

    Components of a Successful Strategy

    Clearly, an ongoing content strategy is a good thing. But you also know that simply having a “good” strategy isn’t enough. Your strategy needs to be better than that of your competition, so what components are going to help you get there?

    • Consistency. If you want an ongoing loyal readership, you have to be consistent. That means publishing similar types of material of a similarly high quality on a regular basis. The goal here is to set and then consistently meet your user expectations; consider implementing regular features, such as Zendesk has with its “tip of the week”:

    Zendesk Blog

    (Image Source: Zendesk)

    • Appropriate targeting. Don’t write for everybody or you’ll end up writing for nobody. It’s tempting to write to a “general” audience for the extra volume, but it’s far better to have a smaller audience who’s hungry for your content than a large one who’s lukewarm. Know which demographics matter, and write to them.
    • Originality. This should go without saying, but your content must be original! Don’t just find a SaaS competitor with a service similar to yours and copy everything they’re doing on their blog. Find a unique angle and go with it. Make yourself stand out.
    • Detail. The level of detail you provide is crucial to proving you’re worth your salt—and when I say detail, I don’t mean length. I mean nuggets of specific information your users wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else, such as case studies, examples, statistics, and hard facts. Dig deep here.
    • Practicality. The content that gets shared the most tends to be useful in some way. For example, it might help people be more efficient, or give them a new idea to try in their chosen careers. Again, write to a specific target audience here.
    • Diversity. Don’t write variations of the same topic over and over, and while it’s a good idea to retain some consistently, it’s a bad idea to use the same formulas and formats too often. Diversify your strategy by adding in new mediums, such as infographics or video, and experimenting with new topics regularly.
    • Syndication and visibility. Even if your content is amazing, people won’t be able to find it on their own. Work to syndicate your content and make it visible to people outside your current readership on social media and other online outlets.
    • Propagation. It’s also a good idea to set up separate pillars of your content strategy, such as by building relationships with different publishers. This will also help you earn more high-quality inbound links, with a more diverse backlink profile.
    • Escalation. All these components in place may seem like enough—and yes, if you follow these, you’ll likely start getting the edge on your competition within months or even weeks. However, you can’t let your strategy remain stagnant. Your competitors will be breathing down your neck, and that means you’ll have to escalate your efforts, iteratively, to see better results over time.

    Key Angles

    The general rules I outlined above apply to everyone, but they don’t give you much direction when it comes to topic selection or angles to choose for your content. Unfortunately, I can’t give you much specific advice here unless I knew exactly what type of service your company offers and who your target audience is.

    You have to choose topics that your audience wants to read and present them in a way that makes it easy for them to do so. You’ll want a blend of short-form and long-form content, since each have inherent advantages, and as a general rule the following content types are exceptionally popular when it comes to social shares and link earning potential:

    • Lists. You’ve seen listicles everywhere, and for good reason; they’re digestible and appealing.
    • How-tos. Help people do what they need to have done.
    • Futurism. Make bold predictions about the future of your industry (or technology).
    • Resources and cheat sheets. Give your users long, downloadable guides to use in their professional environments.
    • Infographics. Infographics have massive share potential thanks to their attention-grabbing nature.
    • Videos. Videos are only getting more popular—consider video webinars here too.
    • Quizzes. This may be hard for SaaS companies to adopt, but try to find an application for your specific software.
    • Opinion pieces. State-of-the-industry pieces and bold, controversial stances can be powerful.

    Don’t take this list as the be-all, end-all; instead, use it as inspiration in combination with your audience knowledge and topic selection to come up with all-star post ideas.

    Getting Started

    If you want to beat your competition, you have to know what they’re doing in the first place, so get researching! Everything starts with strategy, and you won’t be able to form one until you know where you currently stand. Once you’ve gathered the data on your competitors’ ongoing content strategies, you can use this entire section to hunt for weaknesses. What are they doing that they shouldn’t be doing? What aren’t they doing that they should? This information should provide the foundation for your strategy, and once you start following it, readers will naturally be more attracted to your brand’s work over any other competitor.

    FAQ and Troubleshooting

    Of course, content for SaaS companies isn’t and shouldn’t be limited to only traditional content marketing. Generally, content marketing is designed to attract new customers—but how can you use content to make sure they stick around? Customer retention is crucial if you want your SaaS to keep growing, and one of the best ways to up your rates is by providing a free, comprehensive body of content to answer common user questions, troubleshoot problems, and generally keep your users informed of your software’s latest updates.

    The Benefits

    FAQ and troubleshooting content takes a lot of work, but the benefits are well worth it. Here are just a few of them:

    • Improved customer retention. I mentioned this in the introduction, but customer retention is a need you can’t ignore in a competitive setting. Losing a customer is bad enough, but think about the effects of a customer transitioning to one of your competitors—you’ll lose traction, they’ll gain traction, and the word-of-mouth ripple effect could cause even more users to go. You have to fight to keep your users, so make sure your help and resources are better than anyone else’s.
    • Bad experience recovery. Occasionally, your software is going to leave users feeling frustrated or confused. When that happens, they’re vulnerable, and you need to be there. A fully fleshed-out content strategy can be a major comfort to a distressed user. Check out the comprehensive help that Moz offers as an example:

    Moz Articles

    (Image Source: Moz)

    • Prospect reassurance. Your FAQ section, if publicly available, can also serve as a way to reassure possible prospects that your company is the right choice. Seeing a full resource library will demonstrate your commitment to customer service, and could help you close an otherwise iffy deal.
    • Reduced customer service costs. Think about it this way—if your content library was so comprehensive that it answered every possible customer question, you wouldn’t need a customer service team at all! Though not a competitive advantage, there are cost efficiency benefits to adopting this type of content strategy.
    • Greater customer ownership. Depending on what elements you offer, you could encourage a greater sense of ownership and participation among your users. For example, a community forum could bring your users together, establishing greater brand loyalty and even brand evangelism.
    • Circular feedback. Finally, with improved customer participation and small additions like “was this article helpful?” style micro-surveys, you’ll glean new insights from your customer base, which can lead you to even better improvements of your brand and software. Think of it as a glorified customer survey that requires no additional investment.

    Components of a Successful Strategy

    Just like with ongoing content, there are certain components you’ll need to include if your strategy’s going to be successful. These tenets apply no matter what type of content you’re pursuing—an FAQ page, an encyclopedic-style library, a customer forum, or some other type.

    • Specificity. Your content shouldn’t speak in general terms. When your customers arrive, they’re either dealing with a specific problem or they have a specific question—your content needs to address this specifically. Otherwise, your guidance will be unhelpful, and your customers may seek a more knowledgeable competitor as an alternative.
    • Thoroughness. Your customers are probably smart. Very smart. But assume they have no idea what they’re doing. Be as comprehensive as possible in your offerings, with a dedicated article or section to cover every possible complaint or point of confusion a customer could have. Take a look at how many options Unbounce has for its users:

    Unbounce Knowledge Bank

    (Image Source: Unbounce)

    • Multi-platform nature. The more platforms you include in your model, the better. Earlier in this section I alluded to FAQ pages, customer forums, and resource libraries as distinct constructions—but why not feature all of them? Why not also include an offsite presence, such as through social media? The more channels you offer, the more ways customers have to get in touch with you, and the more satisfied the majority of your user base will be. Take a look at all the ways Pega has to get support:

    Pega Support Portal

    (Image Source: Pega)

    • Timeliness. This is especially important when you address a new update, a new change, or something that went wrong in your app. You have to be proactive in your offerings, so that when users start looking for something, it’s already there waiting for them. Your help documents aren’t something you can procrastinate on—get them up and running as soon as possible, and be proactive when it comes to addressing new features.
    • Visual and/or audio elements. Not everyone learns the same way, so it’s imperative that you don’t rely on any one format or medium to comprise the bulk of your resources. Written articles are great because they’re relatively easy to produce and they can be indexed completely in search engines, but video and audio elements are also helpful—even the inclusion of screenshots can take your documents to the next level of quality.
    • Customer engagement. No matter what forms of help you choose to offer, there should be some way for customers to engage. In a forum, this means hosting an open community that can ask and answer its own questions. In a tutorial series, this might include micro-surveys to gather feedback. Even a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down can make customers feel more engaged and give you more feedback with which to improve your approach.
    • Ongoing improvement. Speaking of improvements, you should always be making them. Your help and resources section will never be complete, and it will never be “good enough.” To stay ahead of the competition, you need to constantly work to add new content, update old content, and refine your tactics to provide the best material possible for your audience.

    Key Angles

    Like with ongoing content, there are a few angles you should strive for—though this list is less focused on specific formats and mediums, and more focused on the purpose of the content you provide:

    • Problem resolution. First and foremost, your content should be able to—theoretically—solve any customer problem on its own. If your content is unhelpful for any reason, you need to have contingencies in place, such as a chat feature or a customer service line.
    • Curiosity exploration. Next, remember that prospective users will be crawling your help guide to get a feel for what your software is like. Accordingly, much of your content should “show off” the best features of your product, and make it look as simple and appealing as possible to an outside user.
    • Transparency. The more open you are about problems, issues, and discrepancies in your app, the less room there is for customer criticism. No platform is perfect, and you need to be willing to admit that. Proactively give users the tools they need to compensate for these weaknesses. Take, for instance, SalesForce’s social media presence, which has an entire wing dedicated to customer service:

    Salesforce Support Tweets

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    • Customer commitment. Show that you truly are committed to your customers by listening to them. If you have forums, get involved yourself. If you see lots of the same question or complaint, prioritize it as an item for the next round of publication. This will show prospective customers how valuable you are (and will increase loyalty in your existing user pool).
    • Secondary value. Your resource library can have secondary values in addition to its ability to solve user problems. Take, for example, Wistia’s customer forum, which has evolved into a platform for shared experiences and mutual help in areas beyond the software platform:

    Wistia Support Articles

    (Image Source: Wistia)

    Getting Started

    The goal here is to be as specific and comprehensive as possible, but you don’t have to do everything all at once. Don’t put that level of pressure on yourself. Instead, start with the basics; a simple how-to guide or tutorial can work well as an introductory measure. Walk through your software as a new user, and document the process. Think up a handful of common questions a user might have, and address them on a simple FAQ page.

    From there, you can expand outward. Start digging into more specific problems a user might run into, and gather data about what your customers might like to see. Your resource library here will be a continuous work in progress, so the sooner you get started, the sooner you can reap the benefits.

    Growth and Ongoing Considerations

    In both a traditional content marketing strategy and a help/troubleshooting strategy, it’s important that you prioritize your long-term growth and ROI. That means making improvements, doing more work, and giving your customers more of what they actually want. Your competitors will continue to be aggressive long after you initially adopt your strategy, so keep them at bay with these ongoing tactics:

    • Keep what works. If you find a particular type of article or feature is popular, try to learn what qualities made it that way, and replicate them in future additions. Rely on objective data here, rather than your own assumptions.
    • Throw away what doesn’t. Sometimes, a content idea seems great in theory, but when it’s published and live, it just doesn’t generate any meaningful momentum. Don’t force the jigsaw puzzle piece into place; instead, recognize that it isn’t working, and move onto something else.
    • Listen to user feedback. If you know what questions to ask and how to get your users to participate, they’ll tell you everything they want and everything they need. All you have to do is listen, and give it to them.
    • Be better. There are always ways to improve the quality of your content—more detail, more images, more coherent organization, etc. The minute you stop improving, your competitors will start catching up, so always strive to be better.
    • Do more. Expand horizontally by offering new regular features, new systems, and new areas of development. You don’t have to keep everything (and you shouldn’t keep applications that aren’t working), but you should always be building new wings of your portfolio.
    • One-up your competitors. Your competitors are sneaky, wily, and unpredictable. If they’ve managed to compete with you this long, it’s because they’re smart and they aren’t afraid to tackle challenges. They’re going to keep coming out with new, innovative content strategies, so keep an eye on them—and work to find ways to one-up them with your own.

    Conclusion

    Content is more than just a marketing tool, and it’s more than just an ingredient in your overall brand strategy. If wielded properly, content is the ultimate weapon you have to edge out the competition. With a better ongoing content strategy, you’ll be more visible, more authoritative, and more helpful than any of your competitor, and as a result, you’ll wind up with a far higher customer acquisition rate. Similarly, if your troubleshooting and “help” content strategy is better than your competitors, your customer retention will prevent your users from ever switching sides.

    SaaS is a crowded, competitive field with lots of turnover, lots of risks, and enormous potential rates of return. You may have a great product, but there are likely dozens of competitors with similarly great products. You owe it to yourself to find alternative routes to differentiation and, of course, improvement to set yourself apart from the crowd. Content is the perfect place to start.

  10. How to Build a Brand From Scratch

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    You know what a brand is, so I’m not going to bore you with a standard definition. You might already have a brand, but are unhappy with it, you might be starting a company without a brand, or you might have a brand but simply know nothing about it.

    In any of these scenarios, your brand requires attention. It’s one of the most important elements of your business since it permeates not only your corporate identity, but also every sales and marketing campaign you ever launch. If you’ve got a brand already, you can work on it by trying to understand its function (and maybe upgrade it to a more modern aesthetic), but otherwise, you have one, admittedly daunting option: building a brand from scratch.

    This guide will walk you through this complex, yet stimulating process, helping you to find the perfect set of brand characteristics for your organization—and challenging you along the way.

    Why is a brand important?

    Before I dig into the details, let’s establish why it is a brand is important in the first place.

    Take a look at these options.

    importance of branding

    (Image Source: The Benjamin)

    Which one do you think tastes best? Second best? Unless you’re deliberately manipulating your answer, the stronger brands with the higher prices look as though they taste better. Yet, according to blind taste tests, there’s no inherent advantage one brand has over the other (for the record, Pepsi won consistently during the Pepsi challenge—but biases in the type of test used have been called into question).

    The point is, a noteworthy brand will immediately seem like a better product, service, or business than one that is unknown, or objectively weaker. Strong, consistent brands have immediately better appeal, tend to encourage more customer loyalty, and end up performing better than their counterparts. If you can develop your brand enough, it will come to speak for itself in terms of quality—the way powerhouse brands like Coca-Cola, Apple, and Amazon have today.

    So how can you build a “strong” brand on your own? That’s the purpose of this guide.

    Simple tips to establish the right mentality

    First, you need to set yourself in the right frame of mind. Building a brand isn’t a simple, easy, one-step process like choosing a gas station to refuel at. It requires an investment of time, effort, and in many cases, money. If you start with the right mentality, you’ll be prepared for all the challenges to come your way:

    • Don’t skimp. This is one of the biggest investments you’ll make for your company. You wouldn’t buy a house that was falling apart just because it was cheap, nor would you spend $100 for a car that probably wouldn’t get you anywhere. Branding is not the place for frugality, either financially or in terms of effort. Be prepared to give it your all.
    • Think it through. If you jump and run with the first idea that pops into your mind, you’ve done yourself a disservice. First drafts are always terrible, so take your time, sort through multiple ideas, and only walk away with what sticks.
    • Be ready for your brand to be everywhere. Brands aren’t just something you slap on the front door and push into the corner of your website; by necessity, they are present everywhere. They’re in your ads, in your social profiles, and even in your company’s office. Your brand will define you.
    • Get everyone on the same page. Because your brand is present everywhere, it’s important that every member of your team understands and accepts the rules of your brand. Any break in consistency could compromise its overall effectiveness.
    • Don’t separate yourself too much. As a founder or company owner, try not to make your brand too much of a separate entity—throw your own thoughts, values, opinions, and personality into the mix. It will make your brand seem more personal, which as you’ll see, is always a good thing.
    • Don’t be afraid to get help. Branding is a serious, intensive endeavor, and not all entrepreneurs or marketers are capable of doing it alone. If you find your own experience and capabilities are limited, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

    Now that you’re mentally prepared for the challenge, it’s time to start building a brand.

    Ingredients of a Successful Brand

    A brand is more than just a logo; it’s an entire character in its own right. It’s an attempt to personify everything your company is and hopes to be, which as you can imagine, is a monumental challenge. There are three main outlets for your brand to exhibit itself.

    Logo and colors

    When most people think of a brand, they think of its logo and colors—two defining signatures that, when present, can color the impression of an entire ad or sponsorship. Think about the subtle power of the Nike swoosh on a headband, or the ubiquitous and familiar FedEx logo on trucks and packages. It’s more than just a name or an iconography—it’s a symbol of an idea.

    Ideally, your logo and colors will stick with you through the ages. Even as your brand requires updating, your customers will still be able to recognize the core. Take Shell, for instance, which has updated its logo many times without ever alienating the original concept:

    Shell Logo Branding

    (Image Source: Logo My Way)

    It’s hard to communicate a personality through a shape and color scheme, but that’s what the other elements are for. The logo, colors, and even the tagline merely serve as quick identifiers for people to pick up on.

    Image and character

    Your logo and colors are all about making a fast impression, whereas your image and character require some investment—they need to be built over time. There are many potential applications and signatures here; for example, your company’s mission and vision statements can speak volumes about who your company is and what it does. Your choice of social media platforms, advertising, and the type of building you occupy can also tell consumers (and employees) what type of company you are.

    These are intangible, hard-to-define qualities, which makes them a challenge to pin down. But take a look at this Doritos ad:

    Doritos Ad

    (Image Source: Deseret News)

    The lunacy in this ad, independent from the logo’s presence and the tone of voice (which I’ll touch on next), is something you wouldn’t find in an ad for Wells Fargo or Rolex. It’s a brand of a different character altogether.

    Voice

    Finally, there’s the voice you use—and that voice isn’t limited to written messages. Your brand’s voice should flow in every piece of content you produce, from your blog posts, infographics, and videos, to internal memos, to social media channels. Take Taco Bell’s casual, down-to-earth, surrealist voice as an example:

    Taco Bell Tweet

    Can you imagine if Taco Bell wrote something like, “Tacos are an inexpensive way to satisfy your hunger. Ours are prepared fresh. Learn more: (link)”? It doesn’t seem to fit.

    Setting the Foundation

    Now that you have an idea about what your brand should cumulatively entail, it’s time to start building the foundation for your work. We’re not going to build your brand all at once; this is just the infrastructural work that we’ll need for modifications down the line.

    Research the competition

    Your competitors are going to be a rich source of information for you as you develop your own brand. You’ll learn what to do, what not to do, and how to distinguish yourself from the crowd—and with these tenets, you can start constructing the pillars of your brand.

    • Find the industry standards. Certain industries have cross-company brand standards that don’t generally apply to others. For example, most educational brands have an air of professionalism and conservatism, while most kids’ breakfast cereal brands are cartoonish and playful. Figure out what all your competitors have in common, from a general perspective, and consider adopting similar qualities for your brand (we’ll work on differentiation later). All in all, brands within an industry aren’t that far apart from one another:

    Car Brands

    (Image Source: Strategy Business)

    • See what does and doesn’t work. Even if you’re not a branding expert, you should be able to find out some things that do and don’t work for other brands in your industry. Do people react negatively or positively to certain elements?
    • Learn what you do and don’t like. Once your brand is built, you’ll be stuck with it for a long time. Don’t waste effort building something you don’t like from the outset. What would you, personally, like to see in a brand? Make a list, and don’t be afraid to let these qualities influence your decisions down the road.
    • Analyze the degree of difficulty. The level of competition will help you decide what route to take when it comes to brand development. For example, if you’re in a relatively new industry with few challengers, you can build almost anything you want. If you’re in an industry with a handful of massive corporations at the top, you’ll need to be risky by defying old standards and making yourself stand out.

    Find your unique value

    Speaking of standing out, your brand must if it wants to survive. There must be at least one factor, preferably more, that no other brand in your industry possesses to make yours seem unique in the crowd. To find this quality, you must look at what your brand offers; what unique value can you give your customers? Is it your excellent customer service? Is it your friendly atmosphere? Is it your underdog status? Is it your novel approach?

    Try to pin down as many qualities as possible, and integrate those into your preliminary brand identity. For example, if one of your key differentiators is your game-changing app, emphasize your break from the mainstream with an edgier brand personality. If you’re trying to emphasize value, make your brand more logical and calculating.

    Identify your target demographics

    It’s not enough to identify your competitors and how you stand out in the crowd. After all, there’s only one thing that matters when it comes to the effectiveness of a brand: how your customers accept it. Accordingly, before you go any further in your brand development, you need to ask yourself some serious questions about your target demographics.

    • Who is buying your products? Hopefully, if you’re building a business, you already know the answer to this question. Think about them in terms of their critical identifiers—the qualities that your buyers have, but your non-buyers do not have. For example, are they educated? Are they a specific age or gender? Do they live in one specific geographic location? Make a list of these traits, and keep them in mind when you ask the following questions.
    • What do they need? What does your target demographic need to feel comfortable? A young man, for example, might feel pressured to have the approval of similar young men before making a decision—demanding a “cool” or approachable brand. An older professional, on the other hand, would value and trust a company with a strong history and a sense of tradition.
    • What do they like? This may seem like just a softer variant of the preceding question, but there’s much less at stake here. What would be appealing to this person? For example, a farmer in Iowa would probably appreciate a simpler personality than an urban yuppie, who might crave something sleek, modern, and elegant.
    • What makes them loyal? This may be the most important question of all. What factors will influence a person to stay loyal to your brand once they’ve become a customer? For VISA, as an example, it’s the consistent reassurance that their credit cards are accepted everywhere:

    Visa Credit Card Ad

    (Image Source: Adweek)

    Characterization and Refinement

    Okay. At this point you have a tenuous grasp on what your brand is, at least at the center of its identity. If it helps you, make a list of all the qualities you wish your brand to have and keep them as a point of reference for this section. Here, I’ll introduce you to a number of different strategies and exercises you can use to take those qualities and flesh them out into something more comprehensive and substantial.

    Your brand as a character

    When you look at your list of key brand qualities, it may look a little bit jumbled. You may see lots of words on the page, but no clear identity shining through. This exercise will help you create a more approachable identity for your brand, one that transcends the words you’ve written on the page, and may help you find new qualities to introduce or manage.

    Instead of thinking of your brand in the colorless term of a “corporate identity,” instead, think of your brand as a human being—a fictional character. What would this person be like in real life? How would they talk? What would they look like? How would they dress, walk, and act in different situations? Can you see this person making a good impression with your target demographics? Why or why not? Make adjustments accordingly, and sculpt your character as you would for a character in film or literature.

    Some brands have actually attempted to do this literally. Remember Apple’s “Mac vs. PC” ads?

    Mac vs PC Ad

    (Image Source: Business Insider)

    They’ve done the work of characterizing Apple as the hip, young, easygoing man while contrasting it against his stuffy, mediocre counterpart. It says a lot about the brand as a whole, and you can almost see these characters’ identities emanating in their different brand environments.

    The grab bag

    You’ve currently listed a number of qualities you want your brand to have, but how many adjectives have you used? Come up with a giant list of adjectives—and you may need help for this—that may or may not describe your brand. Randomize them, and start evaluating them one by one. Ask yourself: does this describe your brand? Why or why not? This will lead you to new and different perspectives on what your brand truly is. You may even find some new words that describe qualities you’d like your brand to have that you hadn’t thought of before.

    What your brand isn’t

    Sometimes, it’s even easier to define what your brand is by defining exactly what your brand isn’t. Take the time to generate a list of qualities that are the antithesis of your brand, and play them out in hypothetical scenarios. These scenarios will serve as a counterpoint to whatever strategies and qualities you do come up with. For example, if you want to be a brand that’s youthful, playful, and down-to-earth, come up with some ad taglines that are the opposite of your intention, such as ones that speak to an older generation, or put on airs. Then, come up with an appropriate version of the message that fits in line with your target brand characteristics. Seeing them side-by-side will help you illuminate and pinpoint the key areas of differentiation.

    Applying your brand to different areas

    When you put your brand in place, you’re going to be featuring it everywhere, so try experimenting with your brand in different areas. What kind of advertising would your brand produce? What kind of voice would it have for a blog post or an ongoing content marketing campaign? How can you structure your customer service emails differently, or change the way your sales team approaches new deals? Run isolated test scenarios as a kind of sandbox for your working brand platform. If you run into an ambiguity, or don’t know how your brand can change or influence something, it means you’ve overlooked a key element of your brand and you may need to return to a former planning stage.

    Experimentation and revision

    You aren’t going to get it perfect the first time. Or the second time. You can’t think of everything during the brainstorming and initial outline phase. The only way to uncover every possibility is to put your brand in place, and make adjustments as you come to encounter new challenges and situations. Don’t be afraid to make mild adjustments to your brand along the way, as long as you aren’t compromising the main pillars that you’ve already established.

    Putting It Into Practice

    It’s up to you how you want to finalize your brand. Most companies opt for some kind of “brand manual” or guidebook that explains everything there is to know about your brand, including color requirements, taglines, characteristics, and specific applications. If you’re working with an external marketing firm, they’ll almost certainly supply you with such a tangible handbook. The key is to come up with something tangible and accessible among your entire staff that recaps everything you’ve established thus far in a formal and concrete way.

    Make an announcement—or don’t

    If you’re releasing a new brand for your company, it may be beneficial to make a formal announcement on social media and through press releases. The extra attention will give you an initial boost in visibility, and will help to “finalize” the change, especially if you have current clients. This can be as grandiose or as innocuous as you wish it to be, and you certainly don’t have to make a formal announcement (especially if you’re a new company that has never released a brand to begin with). Judge the advantages and disadvantages for yourself.

    Practice, practice, practice

    Much like any other marketing strategy, you probably aren’t going to be good at it without some kind of experience. The first few times you go to write up a press release, or respond to a customer via email, you may find yourself struggling to frame it in a way that’s consistent with your brand. Don’t worry—this happens to even the most seasoned brand experts, and it’s a natural part of the process. As you get to know your brand better, just like you would a person, you’ll more easily access and understand the characteristics you need to harness—and of course, how to actually harness them.

    If you’re concerned about how you’re implementing the brand, spend some time practicing your brand standards on your own. Write out a handful of simple sentences such as “I want to eat ice cream” or “my dog is running fast and I can’t keep up,” then try to rewrite those sentences with a flair and intonation that matches the brand you’ve imagined.

    Use a cheat sheet

    You may already have a handbook or formal set of guidelines, but consider going a step further and creating simpler “cheat sheets” for you and your staff. These cheat sheets should consist of a single page, and include some of the most important highlights about how to use your brand. These may include examples, illustrations, or questions to ask before sending a message like, “does the message convey a sense of friendliness?” or “is there a way to make your message more formal?” This will help your staff keep things straight until they’ve all had the chance to develop an intuitive grasp of your brand.

    Internal branding

    Don’t forget there’s also an internal element to your branding efforts. The qualities you’ve created for your brand shouldn’t just permeate all the outbound messages and ads you’re sending; they should dictate the type of environment you’ve created for your partners, workers, and clients. For example, if you want to be an energetic, hip brand, your office should be energetic and hip. If you want to be classy and worthy of respect, your office should be sleek, and your dress code should be stringent.

    Look at any major brand, and you’ll be able to see elements of their brand personality in their corporate headquarters. Just take a look at Google as an example:

    Internal Branding at Google

    (Image Source: TIME)

    Afterword

    Congratulations! You’ve officially created a brand, entirely from scratch, and you’ve put it into complete practice in your organization. Now for the hard part: keeping it consistent! Consistency is one of the most vital parts of your branding strategy—even the best brand will fall apart if you aren’t consistent in applying it.

    However, don’t ever feel like your brand is totally locked in. Over the years, you may find yourself offering different services, targeting different demographics, or maybe even falling behind in terms of technology and competition. In these cases, it’s more than permissible—it’s necessary—to update your brand. The key is to keep your brand consistent enough to avoid alienating any of your previous followers, while making enough changes to present a new identity. It’s not easy, and it’s not that simple, so I may cover it in a future post. Until then, stick with the brand you have, and embrace it for what it is—a singular encapsulation of your organization.

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