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  1. The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy

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    There are 2 types of people in the world:

    1. those who have launched a content marketing campaign, and;
    2. those who haven’t.

    If you haven’t yet, it’s likely that you either don’t know why you should, or don’t know how.

    If you have, maybe your campaign isn’t going all that well, or perhaps you have no idea whether it’s performing well or not.

    Whatever your case may be, I wrote this guide is for you. It provides an overview and the benefits of content marketing, covers how to plan your content strategy, and dives into how to launch your content strategy.

    Ready to get started with a content marketing strategy? Here we go!

    Content Marketing Strategy Introduction

    Table of Contents

    + Introduction
    + Overview and Benefits of Content Marketing
    + How to Plan Your Content Strategy
    + Launching your Content Marketing Strategy
    + Great Examples of Content Marketing

    Introduction

    Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a little bit biased when it comes to content marketing. I’ve used content marketing for myself, for my clients, and I’ve proclaimed its benefits and practicality for many years. So it shouldn’t come to a shock to you when I say that your business should invest in a content marketing campaign.

    But the problem here isn’t usually businesses that aren’t aware of the power of content marketing, or even businesses that don’t want to engage in content marketing. Instead, the problem is usually that entrepreneurs and marketers don’t know what they’re doing. They’re too intimidated to start a content marketing campaign from scratch, and even if they muster the guts to try to launch one, they aren’t really sure where to begin.

    This guide is meant to address this problem, outlining exactly what you need to create a content marketing strategy, and why you need to create one. It’s designed specifically with newcomers in mind, though even if you’ve been in the content marketing game a while, there are some important exercises, considerations, and takeaways that may help you improve your own campaign.

    Feel free to skip around to the sections you need the most, or read straight through from start to finish.

    Overview and Benefits of Content Marketing

    Before you can create an effective content marketing strategy for your business, you need to know exactly what content marketing is—and isn’t—and what potential benefits you could stand to gain from it.

    Content Marketing Overview

    Overview and Benefits of Content Marketing

    I’m going to start with a general outline of what content marketing is from a theoretical standpoint. There are many different ways to approach content marketing, and many different tactics you can employ along the way, but the basic concept is the same no matter who you are or what individual strategic elements you choose to adopt.

    Basically, the idea is to create pieces of content (written, visual, audio, etc.) that people want to read, view, or listen to, and tie those pieces of content to your brand to build awareness, equity, and authority. Rather than directly advertising a product or service, your content will carry a value of its own to consumers, which will make your brand more visible, more authoritative, and more familiar to consumers.

    As your content strategy matures, you’ll earn more inbound traffic, build better customer relationships, and ultimately attract more paying customers (not to mention retaining them for a longer period of time).

    This all sounds good, but the variables are intimidatingly complex. What type of content do you need to produce? How are you going to produce it? What do you do if your target audience isn’t responding? How are you going to grow over time?

    These are the questions that a content strategy can help you answer, but first let’s evaluate content marketing in a more practical context.

    Who needs a content marketing strategy? Who can benefit from one?

    Content marketing can be used by any business with an online presence. Any customer base you can imagine needs some kind of content—even if it’s just more information about a product or service. If you can provide that content, your brand will be the one those customers first engage with.

    Content also serves a variety of different functions, so even if your business can’t benefit from one of the functions, it can probably benefit from at least some of the others. For example, if your customers don’t frequently read in-depth reviews before making a choice (such as in choosing a restaurant), you can still use the search engine optimization (SEO) power of content marketing to drive more traffic to your restaurant’s website, increasing foot traffic and sales.

    To illustrate further, I’m going to introduce SMB Sam, a character we’ll be using frequently at AudienceBloom. SMB Sam has two businesses, a small independent café and retail coffee outlet called Red Diamond Coffee, and a mid-sized consulting business called 6 Point Consulting.

    SMB Sam Content Marketing Prospect

    Sam can use content marketing for either business to attract clientele, but in different ways. He might use content marketing to boost his website’s local SEO so Red Diamond Coffee appears in more search results for people in the local area searching for “coffee shops around here,” while he’ll use strategic manuals and how-to guides to promote his consulting business. We’ll be touching in with Sam throughout the piece to see some of my exercises and practical tips in action.

    The point here is that any kind of business can benefit from content marketing—as long as you have the right goals and strategy in place.

    What if I choose not to implement a content marketing strategy?

    You could argue that content marketing is a practical necessity for the modern age of online marketing, much like having a website in general. However, it’s certainly possible to get by as a business without one—you aren’t going to close your doors merely because you haven’t started a blog. Hell, there are still lots of businesses that are doing just fine who don’t even have a website.

    There are, however, real risks of not pursuing a content marketing strategy, and the biggest one is the opportunity cost. You’re going to miss out on traffic, leads, and reputation benefits—so your business might be profitable without a content marketing strategy, but how much better could profits be if you did have one?

    Plus, either your competitors are already pursuing content strategies of their own (or if they’re not, it’s just a matter of time); how long will it take before their momentum starts to eat away at your market share due to inaction? Your implementation of a content strategy could actually be a defensive maneuver.

    Finally, don’t forget that content marketing campaigns increase dramatically in value over time, due to their compounding returns, so the longer you wait to get involved, the more potential growth you’ll sacrifice and the stiffer competition you’ll have to face eventually.

    Now let’s take a closer look at the individual benefits content marketing offers.

    Brand Visibility

    Brand Visibility

    First up is brand visibility. This is an almost intangible quality in your target audience, but it’s vital if you want to increase your customer base. Producing, distributing, and syndicating content all help your brand get more exposure to potential customers, which increases the number of people familiar with your brand and increases that degree of familiarity. As people become more familiar with your brand, they’ll be naturally more inclined to purchase from you when the need arises, or to recommend you to someone who has a need for your products or services.

    Let’s say SMB Sam starts promoting his blog for Red Diamond Coffee, and he gradually starts getting his brand featured in outside publications that coffee drinkers regularly read. The outskirts of his customer base will go through four distinct stages of familiarity:

    • Unawareness. First, these potential customers are wholly unaware that Red Diamond Coffee exists. They don’t recognize the logo, or the company, and have never shopped there.

    Unawareness

    • Awareness. Next, these customers may read a piece or two that Red Diamond Coffee has promoted, and they’ll become exposed to the brand (or at least the name). They may recognize it in the future, strengthening their recognition. If there’s an external prompt to buy, such as an ad, or if they’re driving by a physical location, they’ll be more likely to buy.

    Awareness

    • Recognition. After seeing the brand in multiple contexts, customers will become vaguely familiar with the brand—enough to talk about it, and enough to start considering making a purchase there (without any external prompt).

    Recognition

    • Familiarity. With enough exposure, customers will become highly familiar with the brand, including its mission and vision. If they like the brand, they’ll start buying from it regularly, but even if they don’t, they’ll still be able to recommend it to friends and family.

    Familiarity

    Content marketing helps you achieve this progression with wider and wider audiences.

    Brand Reputation

    Of course, merely being visible isn’t enough. If you want people to buy from your brand, they need to be able to trust it. The best way to earn that trust is through a demonstration of your authority, knowledge, expertise, or history, and as you may have guessed, content is a perfect outlet for this.

    How you go about this depends on your company and your customer base, but HubSpot is a perfect example. HubSpot sells marketing and sales software, so its clientele is clearly interested in marketing and sales. They may know what they’re doing, to various degrees, but they’ll probably need partners to help them get the job done, and they aren’t going to choose just anybody. They want someone who’s a major authority in the space.

    To address this, HubSpot gradually built up a massive content archive—one of the most impressive online (and to which I have contributed)—of how-to guides, tutorials, and case studies related to sales and marketing. They became known as one of the biggest authorities in the industry, and as a result, their brand is recognized by most online users as being both trustworthy and authoritative. Their sales patterns continue to grow because of this reputation, and it’s all thanks to content.

    hubspot content marketing

    (Image Source: Hubspot)

    SEO and Organic Search Traffic

    Next, we can take a look at the ways content marketing can affect your rankings in search engines through SEO (search engine optimization). SEO itself is a complex strategy, demanding frequent revision and work both on and off your website.

    The basics of content marketing, however, are relatively simple. Google looks at two things when it evaluates how to rank sites for a given user query: authority and relevance.

    The higher these two factors are for a given site or individual piece of content, the higher it will rank in search results, and the more traffic it’s going to receive. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to maximize these two factors for relevant user queries. Content can help you do both.

    • Linkable assets. First, let’s take a look at the “authority” portion of the equation. Though the process is crazy complicated, the bottom line for authority measurement comes down to the quality and quantity of inbound links to a given URL. The more links you have pointing to your website, and the more trustworthy those origin sources are, the higher authority your website is going to have. On-site content helps you create “linkable” assets on your site to attract these links, (I think of them as “link magnets”) while off-site content helps you build inbound links using a more controlled, manual approach.

    Linkable Assets

    • Online “real estate.” Producing more content also helps you achieve higher relevance for more search queries. By writing content that serves common user needs or addresses common user queries, you’ll put yourself in front of more potential searchers. To use a fishing analogy, every new piece of content you create is like putting another hook in the water. To take this analogy one step further, the quality of that content is like the deliciousness of the bait on that hook. It’s pretty useless to have a hook in a water without bait, and still useless to use ineffective bait. But once you have many hooks in the water with delicious bait, you’ll catch lots of fish.

    SEO and Organic Search Traffic

    Referral Traffic

    When you’re creating off-site content—in any context—you have the possibility of generating referral traffic. In some cases, this is due to your own link building efforts; you’ll manually include a link pointing back to your site in an effort to boost your rankings, but readers can click that link and get to your site directly. Even if stories are written about you, such as press releases or other third-party coverage of your business, you’ll usually get a linked mention of your brand name that users can follow to get to your site.

    Take, for example, this viral story posted on BuzzFeed about a pet owner’s dog’s final day of life. Emotionally powerful and visually engaging, eventually almost 7 million people viewed the story. Note that there’s a link to the owner’s photography blog as a header to the piece. Now imagine that only 5 percent of users ended up clicking that link—that’s about 350,000 new visitors thanks to just one new published piece of content.

    BuzzFeed

    (Image Source: BuzzFeed)

    I’m not saying you should expect 350,000 new visitors (or anywhere near that number) every time you publish content off-site; this is an extreme example. However, it’s not unreasonable to expect hundreds, or in some cases thousands, consistently, when you’re publishing on high-authority, highly relevant, high-traffic sources. It’s a major benefit to the content marketing game.

    Social Media Traffic and Following

    Social media marketing and content marketing are inextricably intertwined. You can use your content to help build a bigger, more relevant following on social media, and you can use your social media following to generate more traffic to your content, thereby making it more effective. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and one you should be taking advantage of.

    The bottom line benefit here is that the more you engage in content marketing, the bigger your social media following is going to grow. You’ll get more social traffic as a direct flow of visitors, and you’ll have more potential consumers to reach when you have promotions or sales to advertise.

    To illustrate the possibilities here, let’s take a look at the same story of our last example. This particular story was picked up by a number of different publications, including Huffington Post. There alone, the piece managed to generate 26,000 social shares (definitely contributing to its millions of eventual views).

    Huffington Post I Died Today

    (Image Source: Huffington Post)

    But take a look at how this affected the owner’s photography page on Facebook. It now sports more than 20,000 likes. How many likes do you think it had before this post went viral? My guess is that, like most other small photography businesses, they numbered in the hundreds.

    robyn arouty photography facebook page

    (Image Source: Facebook)

    Conversion Rate

    Your on-site content has another potential power, if you choose to take advantage of it. Improvements in brand visibility and reputation can help you close more sales for your brand in a general sense, but what about the web visitors who are coming to your site for the first time? What about the visitors in the middle stages of brand awareness, who may not be fully convinced that your solution is the right one? How do you close the deal?

    Content gives you a platform to highlight why your company is the right one for the job. An impressive piece of content that outlines your expertise in your industry is likely to leave a significant impression on an interested prospect, giving them confidence in working with you as opposed to your competitors.

    But content doesn’t just help with closing sales; it also helps with other sorts of conversions, such as building your email list, getting phone calls, or contact form submissions from your audience. Within your content, you can include calls-to-action like “to learn more about this topic, download our comprehensive guide,” and exchange a digital asset (such as a whitepaper or PDF eBook) for an email address.

    I also highly recommend site-wide offers, which display a pop-up, floating bar, or fly-in offer to your visitors to encourage them to sign up for your email list or exchange their email address to get their hands on your latest report, eBook, or other digital asset. OptinMonster and HelloBar are two fantastic options for setting up this sort of offer.

    Traffic and conversion rates go hand-in-hand; if one is consistent and the other increases, you’ll see more revenue, but if you can manage to increase both at the same time, you’ll see rapid revenue growth.

    Customer Retention

    So far, most of the benefits I’ve outlined on content marketing have been focused on customer acquisition, which you might consider content marketing’s specialty. Because it does such a good job of increasing visibility, awareness, and action potential in new, unfamiliar audiences, it’s naturally inclined to favor the attraction of new customers. However, depending on how you use it, you can also leverage its power to retain the customers you’ve already attracted, which for some businesses, is even more important.

    For example, you can use your content as an exclusive value-add that keeps your customers around for a longer period of time. You may send out an exclusive email newsletter, or provide exclusive eBooks to people who have signed up for your service. This makes it harder for them to leave your brand, especially if none of your competitors are currently offering a similar benefit. You could also use content to increase your customers’ satisfaction with your products. For example, you might include more help guides, tutorials, and ideas on how to use your products and services to keep users around for longer. Many SaaS companies like ZenDesk take advantage of this strategy to increase user satisfaction, while more physical-based product companies and organizations like Raspberry Pi use new projects and creative inspiration to keep their active users engaged.

    Compounding Returns

    Perhaps the greatest benefit of content marketing is actually a modifier for all the other benefits; it’s the power of compounding returns that content marketing offers. Content marketing isn’t a strategy that scales linearly; instead, you’ll see a slow build at the beginning, followed by an exponential explosion of results.

    Content Marketing ROI

    Why is this? For starters, content marketing is about creating valuable assets which exist permanently. When you publish a landmark piece of content off-site, that doesn’t go away—it continues to add value in terms of referral traffic, domain authority, and brand visibility over time. The “dog” piece from earlier was written in 2014, yet it’s still popular and still generating traffic and shares. Because you’re adding new pieces consistently, every new piece you add contributes more long-term value; think of it as buying new stocks in a company that pays dividends consistently.

    Another factor is the nature of visibility and reputation, both of which will affect the impact of your campaign. The more visible and reputable your brand is, the more you’ll stand to benefit from each new piece of content you publish. It takes a while to build these from scratch, which is why you generally don’t see results right away, but once you hit a certain threshold, everything you create instantly starts to carry more value. Think of how many shares and views every article gets from a major site like Mashable or TechCrunch – it doesn’t even really matter how good the content is – it’ll get tons of shares and views.

    The longer you engage in a content marketing strategy, the better results you’re going to see. It’s not like a paid advertising campaign, where you only pay for what you get in the moment.

    ROI: Content Marketing VS PPC

    How to Plan Your Content Strategy

    How to Plan Your Content Strategy

    Okay, so at this point you have a pretty good understanding of the robust benefits content marketing offers, and a general understanding of how you might go about achieving those benefits. In this section, I’ll help you understand how to whittle those benefits down to the ones most important to your brand, establish goals and a direction for your campaign, and work on a blueprint for production so you can launch your campaign smoothly and keep it running indefinitely. This is how to plan your content strategy.

    Why You Need to Plan a Content Marketing Strategy in Advance

    At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, why would I even need a strategy? Aren’t I supposed to just write good content? And I’ll admit, it’s true that a handful of marketers have been successful just by “winging it,” writing about topics on which they’re knowledgeable and gradually picking up steam. There’s also a component to learning as you go, measuring and adjusting over time, that would almost seem to negate the effectiveness of writing up a thorough content strategy in advance.

    However, there are some important reasons why you should plan a content strategy—by which I mean a formally written document—that outlines your plans for success. According to research from the Content Marketing Institute, there are four main factors responsible for differentiating self-described “successful” content marketers from self-described “unsuccessful” content marketers. Point one is about content marketing knowledge—which you have now. Point four is about team communication—which is important, but not explored in this guide. Points two and three are about formally documenting your content strategy and mission. Without those ingredients, you’re far less likely to be successful.

    effective content marketing strategy

    (Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)

    Empirically, the data suggest a content strategy is important, but why? The way I see it, there are four main contributing factors here:

    • Direction and foundation. The first point is mostly an ideological one. What is your campaign going to be about? That is to say, why would anyone want to read/view/listen to this content, and how are you going to make it available to them? When you answer these questions on the fly, you’re liable to go with the first thing that pops into your head, and that idea may change depending on what day you try to think of it. Attempting this, your campaign may end up disjointed, or at the very least, you’ll wind up going in a direction that isn’t the most efficient or the most appropriate for your brand. A content strategy, on the other hand, forces you to think through your options carefully, and set things like your tone, your angle, and your niche in stone, so you have an objective set of rules to follow as you shape your campaign.
    • Data and “what not to do.” Drafting a content strategy also forces you to avoid relying on your intuition, which may be strong, but isn’t stronger or more reliable than objective consumer data. You need to dig deep here, looking at your target market and your competitors to find the types of content that work and the types that don’t.As a perfect example of the types of conclusions you can make here, take a look at the results of our What Works in Online Marketing survey (2016 Edition). We pulled a ton of conclusions about the online marketing industry in general—including the fact that content marketing budgets are set to increase over the next few years—but some of our most important takeaways were the types of content our readers wanted to see, and the topics they wanted to see covered by them.

    topics to cover in 2016

     

    types of contents

     

    Clearly, considering the majority of our audience asked for content marketing information in the form of a blog post, we’re doing our best to give you, our audience, exactly what you asked for with this very guide.

    Without this information, we’d be pretty much flying blind. You may get lucky without a formalized strategy, but it’s unlikely.

    • Roles and responsibilities. Even if you’re like SMB Sam and you’re only working with a handful of other people, you’ll still likely be dividing responsibilities among a number of different people. You’ll find that without a coherent and formally documented set of roles and responsibilities, your teammates will be stepping on one another’s toes. You’ll encounter instances of redundancy as two team members tackle the same task, and missed opportunities as team members each assume the other is handling it.A content strategy will, definitively, outline exactly what steps need to be taken, the order they need to be taken in, and who on your team is responsible for each. On some level, this is about securing a level of accountability for your team members to execute the work that needs to be done. But more importantly, this is a simple matter of clarification. Miscommunications are rarely intentional, but this will help you clear them up before you even begin.
    • Metrics for success. A content strategy will help you become successful in content marketing—but what does “successful” even mean? Believe it or not, your content strategy will help you define that for yourself. Everyone will have a different reason for pursuing content marketing, and different ambitions when it comes to timelines and goals—and, as such, different definitions of “success”. When you draft your content strategy, you’ll be teasing out exactly what achievements are most important to realize, and specific targets you’ll want to reach.It’s tempting to simply target “everything,” doing as much as you can in as many directions as you can, and watching “all” of your metrics to see them rise. On some level, it’s important to take advantage of all content marketing has to offer. But don’t underestimate the complexity and sheer volume of metrics that are available to you, and possibilities for strategic development. If you want to have any kind of meaningful success, you’ll need to whittle those metrics down to the most meaningful for your brand.

    The Research Phase

    The Research Phase

    Let’s move on to the actual steps you’ll need to take to draft your content strategy. First, you’re going to need raw information. Remember what I said about needing to have more objective information, rather than relying on your own assumptions and instincts? This is the stage of the process you’ll use to get that information. There are several types of research you’ll need to perform, each with their own challenges and tactics. Your end goal is to walk away with enough raw material and data to inform your strategic decisions.

    Let’s take a look at some of the most important research areas:

    • Market research. Market research is what you’ll use to identify and understand your target audience. Your target audience will be the ones reading your content, supporting it through social sharing, and eventually becoming customers.Hopefully, you already have a solid idea of who your target audience is—but don’t make assumptions yet. Take your time evaluating different demographics and how they might relate to your brand. There are several ways you can do this; for example, you can rely on government-drawn census data to learn more about the buying habits and dispositions of your key demographics (and demographics you may not have previously considered), or you can leverage recent industry studies or market research companies to dig deeper into more specific information. But one of the best ways to capture information on your target market is through surveys, which you can create and distribute easily using a tool like Typeform. You can ask whatever questions you want and—hopefully—get some honest answers to fuel your campaign planning.

      There are many pieces of information you’ll need to look for here, including more specific demographic information (what is your customer’s education level, family life, and preferred level of socialization?), content preferences (including topics, mediums, and news outlets), and buying habits (how long is the sales cycle? How much information do they need before buying?). SMB Sam, for example, might ask a swath of 18-35 year old men and women about their coffee drinking habits, what information is important to them in choosing a coffee, and what types of coffee-related information they wish they had more of.

    Market Research

    • Device usage. You’ll also need to pay attention to what types of devices your target audience is going to be using. For the most part, you’ll find that there’s a great diversity here. More users are opting for multi-platform access to content, switching between desktop devices, tablets, and smartphones throughout the day.

    device usage

    Image Source: ComScore (via smartinsights.com)

    Still, you’ll find that your demographics and your industry likely favor one device more than the others. You’ll need to make your content compatible with all devices, but you might bear one in mind more than the others. For example, let’s say SMB Sam wants to target younger users, who frequently consume content on their smartphone rather than a desktop PC. He might use this information to tailor his strategy toward more mobile-friendly types of content.

    • Preferred media types. There are many different types of media, and all of them qualify as content. Don’t get lost in thinking that “content marketing” is all about written content; it’s often a major constituent, but don’t neglect things like images, videos, and audio streams. Beyond that, there are multiple methods of serving these mediums, such as various channels and file types, and many formatting variables, such as length and overall presentation. Most content marketing strategies will benefit from using multiple of these media types simultaneously, but the only way to figure out which ones are best for you (and your audience) is to research it.

    media types

    • Competitive research. Competitive research adds another layer of sophistication to your research phase. So far, you’ve been researching what audience segments you’ll be focusing on and what types of content they might like to see. This is good information, but it’s all theoretical. Competitive research helps you see content marketing in a live environment—and in your niche, no less. Make a list of your direct and indirect competitors, and take a look at what they’re doing for their own content marketing campaigns. Do they have a discernable content strategy? What types of content are they producing? How have these types changed over the years? How are users responding to them?This information will give you a sneak peek at what strategies work and which ones don’t for your target audience (assuming you share similar demographics). As an added bonus, you’ll learn various weak points in your competitors’ strategies; for example, let’s say SMB Sam notices that his rival, Darn Good Coffee, doesn’t produce any videos, yet his target market is crazy about video content—this is a key opportunity for SMB Sam to develop.

    Competitive Research

    • Keyword research. Keyword research is specifically done for SEO, though even if you don’t plan on investing heavily in an independent SEO campaign, it’s worth doing. Here, your goal is to uncover various keywords and keyword phrases that might serve as good targets for content topics. Keywords, as they exist in SEO, have changed dramatically over the past several years, but they still serve an important role. Rather than stuffing high-traffic keywords into your content, over and over, you’ll be using these keywords as the basis for your article topics, in rotation, to help you better meet the needs of your target audience. I won’t dig too far into keyword research here, as that warrants a full guide in itself, so suffice it to say your research should examine two qualities in detail: the search volume and the level of competition. The higher the search volume, the more potential value the keyword has, and the lower the competition, the easier it will be for you to rank for it in search results.

    keyword research

    (Image Source: ahrefs)

    Again, keep any keyword insights you find here in balance; your primary goal is to produce good content. Write for readers, not for search engines.

    Setting Goals and Establishing a Timeline

    Once you’ve done enough research to give you a broad understanding of your audience, your competitive position, and your niche, you can start drawing up the main goals of your campaign—as well as a timeline in which you’ll meet those goals.

    • The long-term nature of content marketing. Before you get too ambitious, you need to realize the long-term nature of content marketing. You can’t use content marketing as a get-rich-quick scheme, nor can you use it as a short-term boost for your brand. If you’re going to get involved with content, you need to have a long-term focus. Accordingly, I highly recommend avoiding setting any measurable goals any sooner than six months out. Six months is a long time, but it will probably take you at least that long to develop a foundational reputation.In many ways, content marketing serves as a kind of microcosm for business development. When you first start out, you’ll be operating in the red, putting more effort and money into the strategy than it yields in returns. But over time, you’ll start to break even, and eventually, you’ll start earning a far higher ROI on your efforts. You are planting seeds for a garden, knowing full well how long it will take for even the first plant to sprout. With this long-term focus in mind, you’ll be able to set more realistic goals and expectations for your campaign, and you’ll be able to make a plan that takes advantage of this slow build.

    nature of content marketing

    • Budgetary considerations. Ideally, you’d have plenty of resources with which to fund and grow your content campaign. It’s technically possible to start a campaign with no upfront investment; you can start a blog for free, spend your own time to do your research and draft your strategy, and spend your free time producing content to get you started. However, as you scale, you’ll likely find yourself in need of more resources, and don’t forget—time is money. Every minute you spend doing something that’s not something only you can do is value lost to your business.Additionally, there’s a correlation between the amount of time and money you invest and the results you’ll see. It’s a long-term strategy either way, but generally, if you produce more and better content, you’ll start seeing results sooner and at a faster pace. If you have a small budget, you can’t expect to see fast results. Or, conversely, if you want to see faster or bigger results, you need to find a way to increase your budget. Keep this in mind when you’re setting your goals—it’s also going to become important when you work on documenting the execution phase.
    • Types of goals to set (traffic, conversions, etc.). When it comes to setting goals, you’re going to have to consider a number of different areas. Merely stating that you want to “increase brand visibility” or “earn more revenue” isn’t enough. You’ll need to drill down to individual dimensions of performance. You can decide these for yourself, but there are a handful most will want to keep as high priorities:
      • Traffic. Traffic can come from a number of different areas; organic traffic involves traffic coming from search engines, referral traffic is traffic from outside sources, and social traffic is traffic from social media syndication. All three stem from the quality of your content, and all three types of traffic can drive more revenue to your site through sheer volume. If you already have a solid conversion rate, this should be a top priority.
      • Engagement. Engagement comes in many forms, and once again, you’ll need to consider which forms are most appropriate and most impactful for your business. The simplest definition of “engagement” is a user’s direct interaction with your brand. It could be a comment on your article, a subscription to your newsletter, or even a follow on social media. Engagement serves as both an indication of content success and a driver of value (since it brings a user closer to your brand), and is perfect for encouraging brand visibility and authority.
      • Conversions. Traffic and engagements are nice, but conversions are the real goal. If you aren’t concerned about the amount of traffic you’re getting, or if your hardline desire is strictly focused on getting more immediate revenue, conversions should be your main focus.
    • SMART goals. Within these individual categories, you’ll need to set goals that fall into the SMART criteria, which have become so popular they have their own Wikipedia page (with an extensive list of alternative interpretations of the acronym).

    SMART Goals

    (Image Source: Wikipedia)

    For the purposes of your content strategy document, the original criteria will do just fine. Be specific; don’t just aim for an “increase,” aim for an increase of a specific number or percentage. Make it measurable; understand exactly how and where you’ll measure your success. Make it achievable; set the bar high, but not so high that it’s outside your budget and resources’ capacity. Make it relevant; don’t venture into other areas, like customer service satisfaction or company profitability. And make it time-bound; attach a deadline to every goal you set.

    Brand Considerations

    After you’ve set your goals, you can start working on how you’re going to execute your campaign. One of the most important considerations you’ll need to bear in mind are those related to the brand (or brands) you plan to use.

    • The importance of brand consistency. There are some benefits of content marketing that exist in isolation, but the majority are directly tied to your brand’s consistency—how visible, recognizable, and familiar your brand is at every point of engagement. This is what will build familiarity among your target audience. Let’s use SMB Sam and Red Diamond Coffee as examples. SMB Sam wants to appeal to college students, so he writes a number of on-site posts in a casual style, with examples focused on things like getting up early for class or staying awake for a late-night cram session. What if he suddenly starts producing posts that are overly formal, or ones that venture outside the realm of coffee entirely? This has a jarring effect on your audience, so avoid it however you can.

    Brand Considerations

    It’s important to have a formalized and consistent set of brand standards independent of your content strategy; if this is the case, you can draw upon them to inform your prospective campaign. If not, that’s a good place to start.

    • Personal brands. Corporate brands aren’t the only type of brand you can use in your campaign. In fact, personal brands (as a substitute for or extension of your core brand campaign) can be quite powerful. The idea here is that corporate distrust is at an all-time high; people see companies as unreliable, manipulative, and impersonal—and that trend can affect your business’s brand, too.Personal brands adhere to a set of characteristics and values, consistently across multiple channels to build a reputation. However, they’re tied to an actual person (in this case, an author) rather than a corporation. Personal brands can drive traffic to the main corporate page, so you see all the same benefits as you would using a corporate brand, except with an additional layer of public trust and engagement.

      For example, Elon Musk tweets his own thoughts that relate to his corporate brands, like Tesla, Solar City and SpaceX. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg is a well-known personal brand even though he’s the brain behind Facebook (which is a much larger brand). SMB Sam may publish articles as “Red Diamond Coffee,” but also as “SMB Sam.” Both can generate interest for the Red Diamond Coffee brand.personal brandingIf and how you use personal brands is up to you; while beneficial across the board, they’re more beneficial for some companies (especially ones with charismatic CEOs or small, tight-knit teams) than others.

    • Brand voice. Regardless of which brands you choose to use, the main conduit for your brand’s consistency in content is going to be your voice. Your tone and your style (in writing as well as visual mediums) is going to be your signature. It needs to be capable of displaying all your characteristics and values, subtly, for an audience, without ever explicitly stating them. It takes refinement and practice to perfect this, so spend some time honing your approach here—and formally document it once you come up with a list of “key traits” for your voice (such as “formal,” or “casual,” or “educated”).

    Targeting a Market

    Targeting a Market

    Now, you’ve already come up with a target market, and you have a general idea what that target market likes and dislikes, and what their values are. Now it’s time to formalize this information in the context of your content strategy. The best way to do this is with a customer persona (or multiple personas, if you have multiple demographics). This persona is essentially a fictional character you’ll be creating as the “average” customer you want to target.

    To start, come up with a list of traits that define your average customer, whether those are demographic (age, sex, geographic location), environmental (family, education, career), or behavioral (disposition, buying habits, typical brand relationships). Then, put a name and a face to that description. This will help you solidify the way you think about your target audience, and think about it in a more human, approachable way. Once defined, you’ll be able to picture this persona in your mind when writing content, helping you to write specifically for this given audience.

    The persona is also powerful because it’s transferrable; any member of your team will be able to review this information at any time and apply it to their own responsibilities. You can also update these personas as you learn more about your audience, but it helps to have a strong starting point.

    As you might have guessed, SMB Sam represents one persona who I believe fits AudienceBloom’s target market. You might be an SMB owner or a member of the marketing team. If not, shoot me an email at personas [at] audiencebloom.com and let me know what you do. I’ll create a new persona character for you if there are at least 10 readers like you!

    Types of Content

    I’ve mentioned content types conceptually, but it’s time to define exactly how these will function in your campaign. Some of the key dimensions you’ll need to consider are:

    • Mediums. There are tons of ways to create “good” content. You’ll need to consider written content, images, infographics, gifs, videos, audio content, and everything in between. Each of these mediums has different advantages and disadvantages for various target audiences, though in most cases, a blend of different choices will give you an edge.
    • Formats. How your format your content also plays a role in how engaging it is, and how well it fits with your brand. For example, short-form posts are faster reads and are more shareable, but long-form posts are more authoritative and useful (as general rules).
    • Archetypes. There’s no limit to the type of subjects you can choose for your work, but most content can be categorized in terms of archetypes, such as “how-to” posts, tutorials, listicles, opinion pieces, news, and so on. Use your competitive and market research to uncover which of these might work best for your brand, and try using them all to measure their effects.

    The other big variable to consider, of course, is volume. How many of each type of content are you going to produce, and how often will you do it? With this information, you’ll be able to set up a rough editorial calendar, the last piece of the puzzle you’ll need before you actually start executing on your strategy. Your editorial calendar doesn’t need to be anything fancy—at least not at first. It can be a common spreadsheet with listings for your content title, medium, format, and publishing information.

    types of content

    (Image Source: Georgetown)

    Distribution and Syndication

    The final stage of your content strategy is distribution. Content generally isn’t seen unless you do some work to get eyeballs on it (unless you’ve already got a huge brand like Mashable or TechCrunch, in which case you probably aren’t interested in reading this guide), so you’ll need some sort of driving mechanism to help people find it. There are generally four dimensions to consider here:

    • Off-site publishers,
    • Social media,
    • Paid aids,
    • On-site support.

    The “off-site publisher” side of your strategy will focus on where and how you’ll publish content that’s off your website (such as through guest posts). Often driven by personal brands, these are guest contributions on external publications where you’ll be able to reference or cite your on-site content in a way that adds value to the content. For example, after publishing our What Works in Online Marketing research report, I worked with numerous publications to publish guest articles that referenced the results of that report. Here are just a few of those articles:

    Over time, you’ll build your way to bigger and higher authority sources, but before you jump to that level, you’ll need a plan of attack, slowly ratcheting up your efforts and targets.

    Social media involves sharing your content in relevant social media channels as well as through your email newsletter, and with other influencers (often via email or social media). You’ll need to figure out which social media channels are most visible or most engaging to your target market, how (and how often) to syndicate your posts, and how you’re going to grow your presence over time.

    Paid ads includes paid traffic avenues such as:

    • Google Adwords
    • Bing Ads
    • Facebook Ads
    • LinkedIn Ads
    • StumbleUpon Ads
    • Reddit Ads
    • OutBrain

    Paid ads can be a great way to get lots of eyeballs on your content very quickly, but it’ll come at a significant cost. In my own experience, I’ve found paid ads to be pretty disappointing in terms of engagement & shares, so I can’t really recommend them, but I’m sure there are many marketers who have had positive experiences with them.

    On-site support includes internal links, navigation, notices, or ads that direct visitors on your website to a specific piece of content.

    I wrote a piece at Forbes that takes a deep dive into content distribution, which you can find here: The Ultimate Tactical Checklist For Promoting Your Next Blog Post.

    With your vision, your goals, your customer personas, your editorial calendar, and your distribution paths solidified, you’ll have all the key components of your strategy aligned. Now comes the fun part.

    Launching your Content Marketing Strategy

    Launching your Content Marketing Strategy

    Formally launching your content marketing strategy may be a bit scary, but keep in mind it’s a gradually evolving process.

    Things won’t be perfect off the bat, but you’ll always have time to make adjustments and improve your performance.

    Allocating Resources

    First, you’ll need to consider how you’re allocating resources. If you’re following the steps in this guide, you have a general plan in place, including who’s responsible for what, but how exactly do you envision those responsibilities playing out?

    Full-time employees, contractors, or an agency? One of the biggest questions you’ll have to answer is what type of human resources you’ll be working with in your content marketing efforts. Generally, you’ll have three options; hiring a team of full-time, in-house employees, leveraging the power of independent contractors, or hiring a specialized agency. There are some distinct advantages and disadvantages to consider here.

    • In-house employees tend to give you the highest degree of control, transparency, and accountability, but they also tend to be the most expensive option (since you’re paying full-time salaries and, presumably, benefits, as well as employee taxes). In addition to monetary expenses, it takes a significant amount of time to manage a team of employees.
    • Contractors give you a higher degree of flexibility since they require less management than full-time employees, a kind of “a la carte” menu of skill specialization, and they also tend to be less expensive than full-time employees overall (though they are commonly more expensive by the hour). However, building a team of solid contractors is difficult and relationships tend to be less stable as they are likely to come and go.
    • An agency, compared to the other two options, is generally quite affordable. Hiring an agency gives you access to a team of specialists, allows you to tap into established relationships, and relegates project management and other administrative tasks to the agency, freeing up your time for other things. However, this usually means you’ll have less control and visibility into the processes, though this depends on the agency.Depending on the size and scope of your campaign, many companies opt for a hybrid model; for example, they may have one full-time team member who’s in charge of managing the agency relationship for the brand.

    Time and cost considerations. Don’t forget to tally up all the costs you put into your content marketing campaign. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that your return on investment (ROI) depends directly on how much you’re investing in the strategy to begin with. This doesn’t mean you should artificially stifle your costs; on the contrary, if invested wisely, a greater investment will yield a greater return. However, you need to acquire this information so you can use it to judge the effectiveness of your campaign. Be sure to factor in everything you can here, including all employee costs and how much time you’re spending on executing each element of your strategy.

    Establishing roles and responsibilities. You’ve already spent some time segmenting the roles and responsibilities of your individual team members (or other professional relationships) when drafting your strategy, but when you put it into practice, you may find yourself in need of adjustment. To some extent, your team members will be able to grow into their roles over time, but on the other hand, you may start noticing strengths and weaknesses that aren’t appropriate for the roles you’ve set—or you may see inefficiencies in your processes that didn’t arise when you conceived of them. Take some time to evaluate how your team engages, and make adjustments as necessary.

    On-site Content

    Your on-site content is going to serve as the backbone of your campaign, giving you creative control, attracting inbound links, and showcasing your value to prospective external publishers. Your editorial calendar might give you the plan of your content strategy, but don’t neglect the actual practice.

    Creation, editing, and publication. There’s a ton of flexibility in how you actually create your content, since you’re in control. All that matters is that it’s eventually visible and accessible to your target audience, so the drafting process is up to you. Most people use a word processor like Microsoft Word (or Google Docs, if you’re more into team collaboration) for written content, having one person draft the material and at least one other revising and editing it. Track changes works wonderfully here.

    editing

    (Image Source: FGCU)

    Be sure you have checks and balances in place to evaluate your content for surface-level quality factors, such as detail, grammar, and syntax, but also brand-level quality factors, such as adherence  to brand voice and proper formatting. Make sure your content adheres to the guidelines you  established for yourself in your formal strategy.

    Once you’re satisfied with the finished piece, publish it to your site. For written content, this usually involves copy/pasting and filling in some additional information (including any tags and descriptions for SEO you want to include). For images, this involves a simple uploading process. For videos, you can either host these yourself or publish them on YouTube and embed the finished product on your blog.

    Content promotion and syndication. The next step, of course, is to promote and syndicate that content.  First, before you do anything, make sure your site (usually the blog) has social share buttons; this will make it easy for your readers to share your article socially if they found it to be engaging. This, in turn, will increase your post’s visibility, and possibly spark a chain reaction that encourages your post to go viral.

    But for the most part, if you want your post to get visibility, you’ll need to share and promote it yourself. Start by sharing a link to your latest post on all your social media channels. Then, you have a few options for further promotion. For example, you could build a few links (internal or external) pointing to your piece to give it an extra boost of authority and traffic, or you could use paid ads to funnel initial traffic to it.

    Beyond that, you’ll want to save all your posts for future syndication (at least the evergreen  pieces that will remain relevant indefinitely). What this means is, you’ll re-distribute the content  on social media multiple times in the future, perhaps under a new title or lead-in, to reach people who might not have seen it the first time around.

    Off-site Content

    Off-site content follows many of the same rules that on-site content does. The big difference here is that you’ll have to pay attention to the needs of the individual publications with whom you work, which can add a challenging variable.

    Creation, editing, and publication. Ultimately, you’ll follow the same guidelines and procedures I outlined above, but with a few key differences. First, you’ll want to note your target publisher’s editorial requirements. They may mandate that you write posts in a specific format, or they may only accept certain types of subjects, or they may even require specific types of language to be used. Publishers can be finicky, so be sure to follow and respect their editorial guidelines.

    The editing process for external publishers is also going to necessitate changes in your standard workflow. Some publishers may allow you to publish to the site as if it were your own, but this is rarely the case. It’s much more common for there to be a back-and-forth editing process; you’ll send a Word document over, they’ll respond with requested changes, and you’ll eventually hammer out an acceptable piece, or you’ll submit the piece online to be subjected to their own internal editorial process.

    Respect your publishers, work with them, and eventually you’ll see your content featured on their site.

    Note that this guide doesn’t tell you exactly how to find the right publishers or make the request to feature your content; if you’re interested in more information, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide to link building.

    Content promotion and syndication. When it comes to promoting off-site content, your job is a little bit easier. You don’t have to worry about including social share icons (the publisher will do that for you), and your publisher will often promote your post on their own social networks. Still, it’s a good idea to do some promotion of your own, much in the same way you would your on-site posts.

    Take SMB Sam as an example, posting about the latest piece he had featured on Star Roasters, a popular coffee blog.

    content promotion and syndication

    Sometimes a simple post is enough to generate an influx of traffic. Don’t neglect this step.

    Testing the Waters

    Testing the Waters

    No matter how thoroughly you’ve planned your campaign, remember that the early stages of your content marketing efforts are still just you testing the waters. By nature, your plans must change, but there are a few ways you can better prepare your brand and your strategy for these rough early stages.

    • Don’t stray too far from your plan. This may seem counterintuitive, considering I just told you your plans will have to change, but in the early stages of your campaign, the best thing you can do is rigidly adhere to the plan you first set out. Otherwise, you’ll never know if your plans were a success or failure. Think of your content strategy as an ongoing, planned experiment; if you change too many variables at a time, you won’t know which variables were responsible for the effects you observed. Even if your campaign is failing, staying consistent with your plan can help you gather more meaningful information for your future efforts.
    • Be prepared for rejection. This is especially important for the off-site elements of your campaign. If you’re just starting out, you’re going to have zero reputation. Few publishers are going to welcome your work, even on the lowest scales. You’ll have to start with specific niche publishers, local publishers, and other sites with relatively low authority, and work your way up—but even in those low levels, you’re going to face rejection. Be prepared for this, and don’t let it discourage you. Above all, be persistent.
    • Adjust your processes through internal feedback. Eventually, you’re going to gather information about your campaign’s performance through things like Google Analytics, reader feedback, publisher feedback, and any other dashboards you have set up. But there’s one source of data you can tap immediately, and many content marketers neglect it.You need to request and listen to feedback from your own team if you want to build and preserve your momentum. Ask if your team members have different opinions about what type of content you should be producing. Listen if they express concerns about their workloads, or if they feel their strengths aren’t being utilized. This is probably a new experience for everyone involved, and this is one area where you can have some wiggle room on your plans early on. Don’t be afraid to redistribute responsibilities, and adjust your internal processes.

    Building a Foundation

    Building a Foundation

    Though your content strategy covers a number of different areas at various stages of development, it’s a good idea to think of your first job as building a foundation for your brand. Building a foundation is like shaping a wheel you plan to roll downhill; the more time you spend perfecting the shape of your wheel, the more momentum that wheel will eventually build when released.

    These are some of the key areas to which you’ll need to dedicate extra focus when developing your content strategy:

    • Blog archive. Building up an archive of blog posts is important for several reasons; before you get too excited and start self-promoting, make sure you have at least a 10 posts on your company’s blog. Not only will this help you flesh out your on-site SEO strategy, it will serve as a kind of resume when you start reaching out to publishers to ask for guest contributions. When publishers are evaluating your credentials, this is the first place they’re going to look, so you want to have some impressive material there for them to see. This content archive will also provide resources for new visitors to your site, making them more likely to stick around on your site longer and eventually convert.
    • Personal brands. You may also want to spend time shaping and developing personal brands within your organization. Select a handful of candidates you wish to promote as corporate brand ambassadors, and take note of any areas of expertise you want them to specialize in. Make a list of their previously existing credentials, have them flesh out their social media profiles, and help them understand the importance of staying in brand voice (though for personal brands, this involves their natural personality just as much as any formal brand considerations).
    • Social media following. For both personal brands and your corporate accounts, work on building up your following; quality is more important than quantity here, but higher numbers of more dedicated followers will be a huge boon for your campaign. It means more potential eyes on every post you publish, more social sharing opportunities, and of course, a better reputation with which to woo publishers for your guest posting campaign. You can do this simply by engaging in more discussions, reaching out to new people, and posting quality content regularly. Social media marketing is far more complicated than this, but these tactics will get you started. For a comprehensive look at building a social media marketing strategy, grab my eBook, The Definitive Guide to Social Media Marketing.
    • Initial publishers. Once you have a blog archive and a decent social following, you should be able to identify and get featured on a handful of small-time publishers. Look for ones that specialize in your niche, or ones that operate locally. They’ll have less competition, though less visibility is the tradeoff. Keep in mind these are only starting points, and treat these relationships the same way you would a relationship with a major publisher. Your job here is to work your way up the ladder, like this:

    Initial Publishers

    Scaling Your Campaign

    Once your foundation is secure, you’ll work on scaling your campaign upward. You may or may not have accounted for this in your original content strategy, but it’s something you’ll need to prepare for.

    • Start slow. Your first instinct may be to scale as fast as possible; after all, better publishers and more content means more readers and more revenue, right? Unfortunately, growing too quickly comes with its own dangers. Your resources may be spread too thin too quickly, preventing you from producing content efficiently. You may lose your brand voice in a frantic attempt for higher visibility. You may start investing too much before you know which directions are truly effective. In any case, it’s better to scale gradually. Only take forward steps when you’re sure you’re ready to take them.
    • Settling into your niche. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments to your voice, your tone, your content formats, and your subjects as you learn more about your niche. Hopefully, you’ve gotten significant reader feedback—in the form of comments and shares if nothing else—so you should have enough information to really find a home for your brand. You may also find yourself wanting to expand your niche, cannibalizing another niche or simply generalizing your blog for a wider audience. As you grow, this too is acceptable. For example, SMB Sam might expand the focus of his posts gradually from college-age coffee drinkers to coffee drinkers of all kinds (as long as the transition isn’t jarring).
    • Finding better publishers. Obviously, the bigger and more recognizable the publisher, the better it will be for your campaign; visibility, traffic, domain authority, and reputation by affiliation are just some of the benefits here. But you can’t go straight from a niche local publisher to a major national brand. Instead, you need to find “middle men,” gradually inching your way up the authority ladder, and citing your previous publishing opportunities as evidence of your abilities.
    • Increasing volume. Quality must come before quantity. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it 1,000 times more. But if you’re producing high-quality pieces, and you can keep that quality consistent, you can consider stepping up the quantity of your production in order to see better results. One good post is better than five decent posts, but five good posts is better than one good post. Don’t be afraid to escalate your volume, all other things being equal, to increase your readership and engagement.

    Adjusting Your Campaign

    Adjusting Your Campaign

    After you’ve run your campaign for a few months according to your initial strategy, we can take a look at your performance and make adjustments to improve that strategy. Everything boils down to three steps: measuring your performance, analyzing its significance, and forming actionable takeaways that result in change.

    • What to measure. There are tons of possible metrics to measure, and that can be intimidating for new content marketers. Fortunately, that’s why you’ve outlined your specific goals and “success” metrics early on in your content strategy. Use these as a basis for determining what you should measure; traffic, engagements, and conversions, are all important (as well as surrounding variables like bounce rates or time spent on page), but different metrics will be important to different brands.
    • When to measure. Remember that content marketing is a long-term strategy. It’s tempting to dig into your metrics fast and often, especially during your enthusiastic beginnings, but it’s far better to wait a few months before checking in. Once a month is fine for most businesses starting out, and once a week is fine if you’ve already begun to scale your campaign.
    • How to form actionable takeaways. Data alone can’t improve your campaign. Instead, you need to use that data to come up with meaningful insights about how and why your campaign has performed the way it has. The best way to do this is to ask a simple question of every significant metric: “what’s driving this?” For example, if there are dozens of comments on one of your posts, but none of the others, what is it about that post that made it more engaging? Can you apply this to your other posts? Or if one external publisher is driving far less referral traffic than the others, why is this the case? Can you adjust your publisher criteria in the future? I’ve written an article that covers measurement more in-depth, which you can find here: How to Use Google Analytics to Audit Your Content Strategy.
    • Revisiting your strategy. After a few months of measurement and analysis, you should have ample information to revisit your strategy altogether. In some ways, you’ll almost be restarting from scratch, taking a look at your strategy with new eyes from the ground up. It can be painstaking, but it’s an important step; you need to change your campaign, but at the same time, you need formal documentation if you want to keep your experiment under control.

    Specific Industry Considerations

    As a final section, I’d like to explore some specific niches and industries that should bear additional considerations in mind when plotting, drafting, and revising their content marketing strategies.

    • Startups. Startups face a few unique challenges that should be taken into considerations when drafting a content strategy. First, they have very limited resources (in most cases), so they need to rely on inexpensive, efficient tactics to get the job done, starting on a very small scale and working their way up. They also have no pre-existing brand exposure, so they may need to leverage the power of outside authorities to give themselves an early boost. A great example of this is startups leveraging a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter to give their content (and brand) more exposure early on. Aside from that, they generally have a competitive advantage since they’re new to the market, which can be played up for faster results.Startups also have a small publication advantage; even though they don’t have much of a brand reputation, our entrepreneurial society views startups as exciting, which makes their press releases and new submissions all the more appealing to publishers trying to achieve more public visibility.
    • SMBs. Small- to mid-sized businesses also have a few unique challenges. Unlike startups, their brand standards are likely already in place, and they may have a pre-existing customer base. They have limited resources and limited teams, so a bold strategy out of the gates isn’t possible, but their existing customer base can provide a significant platform for early success. Use your customers for surveys to gather information to inform your direction, and use them to help build and support your early social following. SMBs may also face stiffer competition—established but not dominant, there are probably at least a handful of other businesses in your exact role, so dig deeper into your competitive research and try to offer your customers something that your competitors have never been able to. SMBs do have an advantage when it comes to off-site content and publishing, similar to startups; many local publishers and organizations favor SMBs because they view it as a way of supporting local economies.
    • Large enterprises. Large enterprises have a number of advantages that should be taken advantage of. First, they have massive budgets and can build a content archive in a matter of days to weeks. Second, they have large teams, and can leverage the power of many personal brands simultaneously. Finally, they usually have huge audiences already, which gives them one particularly powerful edge—being able to rely on user-submitted content to bolster their positions. Take a look at how Home Depot does this by featuring both in-house and customer-submitted DIY jobs and ideas:

    home depot blog

    (Image Source: Home Depot)

    • Marketing agencies. Marketing agencies are unique because in addition to drafting a content strategy for themselves, they may need to draft content strategies for all their clients. When it comes to supporting your own agency, be sure to prioritize yourself. Your potential customers will be looking at your content efforts to determine whether you’re good enough to be handling theirs, so there’s a lot on the line here.When it comes to drafting content strategies for other companies, there’s one piece of advice that matters more than any other; truly get to know the brand. Don’t just copy and paste the same strategies that worked for you or someone else, because the same strategy won’t work for everyone. Learn what their brand standards are. Learn what their values are. Immerse yourself in their target markets and competitive niches. Only then will you be able to create content strategies for them that truly resonate (and perform).
    • SaaS companies. The software-as-a-service (SaaS) model has become incredibly popular, and content marketing strategies are exceedingly popular (and effective) for them. Rapidly scalable, inbound-focused, and purely digital, content serves SaaS marketing needs perfectly. Because of this, of course, there’s stiffer competition for new SaaS companies trying to break into the market. Unless you serve a truly novel function, you’ll have to use your wits with your competitive research to find weaknesses in your competitors’ strategies.You’ll also need to harness the power of content marketing in different ways. Rather than merely providing general information to your target markets, you’ll also need to provide content in the form of help or support. For example, SalesForce has risen to such prominence in part due to its massive and ever-expanding library of resources and support for its core product. This is because customer retention in SaaS companies is arguably far more important than customer acquisition.

    Salesforce

    (Image Source: SalesForce)

    Great Examples of Content Marketing

    It’s one thing to talk about great content strategies, but another to actually create one for yourself. Since it’s better to see good content in action, I’ll to close this guide with a handful of strong examples of companies who have launched creative, targeted campaigns to increase both customer acquisition and retention. There are some fantastic blogs out there, some of which I’ve used as examples throughout this guide already, and some of which have become widely recognizable on their own as publishers, but for this section, I’m digging into some niche players whose strategic approach gives you something to learn from in your own online initiatives.

    Buffer

    First up, there’s Buffer. Buffer is a social media management app, and a useful one at that—it allows you to schedule, manage, and analyze posts throughout a variety of different social media platforms. Its target demographics, then, are marketers and entrepreneurs who want to perform better in social media marketing.

    If you take a look at their blog, they’ve managed to captivate this audience perfectly, with titles and mediums that would appeal to almost anyone eager to perform better in the social sphere.

    Buffer Blog

    (Image Source: Buffer)

    Comments sections are typically full of lots of comments, showing great reach and engagement with their audience. Social share buttons are available on each post, and you’ll also notice that all of these posts are long, highly detailed, well-researched, and chock full of images and video. Their posts often include primary data with analysis, which they use to draw valuable and interesting insights for their target audience. These posts are very transparent, too, including information like how many posts they paid to promote, and how many impressions they received from paid ads:

    Twitter Analytics Buffer

    (Image source: Buffer)

    They also humanize their brand, showing off their team on their Twitter page, which has 574k followers at time of writing, as well as their Facebook page, which has over 61k likes.

    Buffer Twitter Profile

    These are solid tactics for any content strategy, but where Buffer really differentiates itself is its content distribution strategy; it focuses on generating a massive social media following (with shares, of course as well). This serves multiple purposes, giving them a powerful platform through which to send and support their greatest material and helping them build an even better reputation for themselves—after all, where better to look for a social media authority than social media?

    content strategy

    (Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)

    WaitButWhy.com

    waitbutwhy

    (Image Source: WaitButWhy)

    WaitButWhy.com is my favorite blog on the Web – if you haven’t heard of it, you’re in for a treat. Though it’s just a blog written and illustrated by one guy (Tim Urban), it has exploded in popularity and visibility over the course of the past three years due to one thing that it does better than any other content strategy I’ve ever seen: Quality content.

    The blog doesn’t have a specific target audience; it’s written for pretty much anyone, covering topics that (should) matter to everyone, such as artificial intelligence, cryonics, procrastination, and human ancestors. But even still, Urban manages to nail it with every post he writes, notably excelling in:

    • Forming an emotional bond with the reader through his writing and hand-drawn illustrations.
    • Exceptional attention to detail (I’ve never seen a single typo or grammatical error in his posts, and we’re talking about well over 100,000 words).
    • Covering topics in such thorough detail that he leaves the reader with the sense of “there can’t possibly any more to say about this topic”, always covering both sides of arguments and points of view.

    WaitButWhy has successfully built its email newsletter to over 374k subscribers at time of writing, which is phenomenal for a business that launched in July of 2013 without a formal marketing budget or even a plan other than simply posting great content. The newsletter is built through calls-to-action on the site that include an occasional pop-up. But even that pop-up is imbued with Urban’s humor, and is seemingly self-aware:

    waitbutwhy popup

    That email newsletter is used strategically, too: every new post is announced via the email newsletter as well as the social media channels, which “seeds” each post with literally hundreds of thousands of readers, many of whom in turn share that content on their own social networks to further increase each post’s reach. And each post’s engagement is through the roof; some posts have hundreds or even thousands of comments.

    Perhaps most impressive, WaitButWhy is fully funded by its Patreon patrons, with over $13,000 in monthly pledges at the time of writing. Yes, I’m one of those patrons. That’s over $150,000 a year. Not bad for a guy who started a blog 3 years ago from a small apartment in New York.

    WaitButWhy serves as an example of how content really is king. Its audience was built on the foundation of quality content, and that audience now acts as a distribution engine which has resulted in the kind of runaway success that most companies couldn’t even achieve with a multi-million-dollar marketing budget.

    BlondeNerd.com

    blondenerd

    (Image source: BlondeNerd)

    If you like video games, you should check out Brittney Brombacher’s online portfolio of content. Known as the Blonde Nerd, Brittney started blogging about video games on her website in early 2011 with no goal other than to simply participate and become a member of the industry.

    She is the perfect example of how to build a personal brand and leverage the power of social media to build and nurture a loyal audience. Her Facebook page has over 126k likes at time of writing, while her Twitter page boasts 26.2k followers and her Youtube channel has over 13k followers.

    Her content began mostly as written, text-based blog posts about video games, but over the last couple years has become far more video-heavy, to great effect. Her videos achieve much higher reach than her written content, and she seems to have embraced video as the form of content her audience responds best to. She still publishes text-based content occasionally, but she’s a great example of a brand adapting their content approach to cater to what their audience likes best.

    Youtube Blondenerd

    (Image source: Youtube)

    What I particularly admire about Brittney is how evident her love for her audience is. She responds to every single comment left for her by her audience, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, or on one of her blog posts. In doing so, she has fostered an audience that’s intensely loyal. Whereas most celebrities ignore outreach from their fans, Brittney makes each of her followers feel as though they are truly important to her – because they actually are.

    I’ve never seen a brand invest more resources into developing a real, human, personal relationship with their audience as Brittney does. Consequently, she’s the picture-perfect example of not only how to use social media within a content marketing strategy, but also how to grow and nurture a brand while doing so.

    Microsoft Stories

    Microsoft recently launched a segment of its content marketing campaign called Microsoft Stories, which as you can imagine, revolves around presenting stories to its readership. Covering many different angles, the key elements connecting all these stories in common are narratives, as each new piece tells some kind of story, and “personal” significance. I use personal in quotes because these are stories important to “Microsoft” as a brand (theoretically; in reality, they are important to Microsoft’s actual team members). You’ll find small biographies, developments of new technologies, and other inspirational, interesting points of coverage.

    Microsoft Stories

    (Image Source: Microsoft Stories)

    This is perfect to study because it goes a counterintuitive route; rather than producing listicles and ‘how-to’ articles about technology (as a typical tech business might), Microsoft developed a strategy that truly resonates with its customers, striking an emotional connection and differentiating itself from the competition.

    GoPro

    GoPro has an amazing YouTube channel and an Instagram account to go with it. Serving a niche industry, GoPro’s exclusive function is to produce and sell its mobile video equipment. Accordingly, the company realized that simple written content probably wouldn’t attract their key clientele: photography and videography enthusiasts.

    So instead, they went a more visual route, using two of the most visual-friendly platforms on the web to support their work. Furthermore, they aren’t just taking pictures and video randomly; they’re exploring the far corners of the world, going on adventures to resonate with their adventurous and mobile target market. So far, they’ve built an audience of millions, and they seem to keep growing as they produce more amazing material.

    GoPro Instagram

     

    (Image Source: Instagram/GoPro)

    BirchBox

    I’ll use BirchBox as a fast example, since there’s one key feature here I want you to pay attention to. Most of their content is somewhat run-of-the-mill, centering on how-tos, tutorials, and other practical guides for their users. It’s well-developed, but the topics aren’t revolutionary by any means.

    Where BirchBox really stands out is how the company targets its audience. Rather than writing general-use material, or sacrificing one segment of their audience to favor another, BirchBox simply made two blogs: one to target men and one to target women. It proves you don’t have to follow conventions, nor do you have to limit yourself in developing your content strategy; instead, you need to seek whatever alternative paths and developments will help you achieve engagement with a larger share of your ideal target market. Don’t be afraid to get creative, or even defy common practices in your experiments.

    Dummies

    If you’re over the age of 25, you likely remember the Dummies series of books as being staples for learning everything from Spanish to early-stage computer programming. They had (and admittedly, probably still have) their own sections in bookstores, and their branding became instantly recognizable.

    When content made the major shift of going online, Dummies could have easily fallen behind, or become obsolete in the modern era. Instead, they evolved, still offering their classic book series but also adapting by making online instructional articles available to what would be their same target market in an online context.

    These articles, of course, are much shorter than the actual books, but they’ve helped the company maintain its authoritative reputation over the years. Even more interesting, Dummies has launched a new product line—a series of B2B services to help small businesses and startups find their footing in the online era of entrepreneurship and marketing. They’ve developed a specific wing of their content strategy around these demographics as well.

    dummies

    (Image Source: Dummies)

    There are two powerful lessons to take away from Dummies; first, evolution is always possible. No matter how radically the game seems to change, there’s always room for you and your strategy to adapt to the new circumstances. If you don’t change, you’re going to suffer for it. Second, your content strategy doesn’t have to strictly follow your business outline and goals; as you learn more about your readership, you can adjust your business to serve them even better. It creates a perfect feedback loop, allowing you to remain relevant indefinitely with your ever-increasing target audience.

    Conclusion and Key Takeaways

    Conclusion and Key Takeaways

    If you can successfully write up a content strategy, and put it to action during an initial launch, you’ll instantly be in a better position than the majority of content marketers currently competing for visibility. It would be almost impossible to condense the information I’ve presented in this guide to a simple list of “takeaways” so instead, I’ll leave you with one important thought that should help you create and manage your content strategy with a better perspective.

    Content marketing is a recursive process. Every action you take will yield a reaction, and you can use that reaction in a feedback loop to improve your next set of actions. Because of this, you need a strong start and a strong foundation; without one, those reactions and that feedback will carry no significance for your brand. This foundation is both the impetus for and the measurement tool of these ongoing reader reactions, so don’t underestimate its importance by attempting to improvise your strategy.

  2. 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.

  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. Everything a Blog Post Needs for Ideal SEO

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    You’ve got your blogging strategy in place, but are you doing everything you need to do for SEO?

    SEO doesn’t just “happen.” Yes, it’s true that having a content marketing strategy in place already puts you in a better position to gain rank for keywords relevant to your industry, as long as you stay consistent with your posting strategy. However, you can’t just write “any” type of content and throw it onto the web haphazardly. There’s an important series of steps and considerations you’ll need to take if you want to ensure your blogging strategy is doing everything it can for your SEO campaign.

    The purpose of this guide is to look at all of these “optimization elements” on a per-post level, guiding you in crafting perfectly optimized web posts every time you’re ready to publish a new article.

    Elements of an SEO Strategy

    First, let me take a step back and explain that SEO is a complicated, multifaceted strategy that unfolds over a number of different channels and tactics. Search Engine Land recently tried to condense this broad spectrum of factors to a single infographic:

    SEO Strategy Elements

    (Image Source: Search Engine Land)

    Ultimately, your onsite optimization, your onsite content, your offsite content, and your peripheral strategies (like link building and local SEO) will all factor into how you rank for keyword phrases relevant to your brand. That means your content is only responsible for a fraction of your overall results—a significant fraction, but a fraction nonetheless.

    Similarly, there are overall strategic factors that will come into play in your content strategy that aren’t covered here, such as where you publish your content, how you set up your blog, how you syndicate your posts, and so on. This guide will tell you how to optimize your individual posts to maximize their success—but that alone is only one part of your overall SEO strategy.

    With that in mind, let’s start digging into what is it that makes any given blog post “optimized.”

    Basic Strategy

    Before I start looking at the individual content and technical factors that make an individual piece optimized, we need to know what we’re optimizing for, specifically. A handful of optimization factors are standard best practices you can apply to any post exactly the same way, but the majority of them are dependent on your specific targets. Accordingly, you’ll need to outline what it is you’re trying to achieve before you start trying to achieve it.

    • Choose the right keywords. Your first job is to target the right keywords. Now, keyword strategy has changed significantly in the past several years, so don’t jump into this with an old-school SEO approach. Your goal here isn’t to choose a specific keyword target, stuff that keyword into your articles with reckless abandon, and stop at nothing until you rank for that keyword. Instead, thanks to Hummingbird and semantic search, you’ll need to take your keyword targets with a grain of salt. Hummingbird interprets the intention behind a user query, rather than looking for an exact match keyword, so you can’t rely on one-to-one matches and repetition to earn you a keyword rank. Instead, you’ll use keyword research to identify areas of high search volume and low competition that present valuable ranking opportunities. Then, you’ll integrate those keywords (along with synonyms and related terms) into your articles—which I’ll cover in more detail later. Google’s Keyword Planner is great for this.

    Google Keyword Planner

    (Image Source: Shout Me Loud)

     

    • Choose the right topic. Because semantic search makes long-tail keyword phrases and user interests more important than individual keyword mapping, you’ll also have to take a step back and consider what topics you want to write. Take a look at your competitors, industry publications, and your newsfeeds overall. What are people talking about? What aren’t people talking about that they should be? Are there any topics that seem especially popular and ripe for coverage? Are there any alternative angles you can take or new data you can present? The main question in the back of your mind should be, “what would I want to search for if I was in their position?” The best topic ideas tend to be ones that are original (so there’s low competition), valuable/practical (so it appeals to a wide audience), and topical (so there’s lots of people searching for it, or something similar).
    • Write for your audience. Finally, remember that you shouldn’t write primarily for search engines. As much as it’s valuable to find keywords and topics with a high potential return and frame your posts in a way that maximizes their visibility in search engines, your users still need to be your first priority—or you’ll turn them off of your brand and all your efforts will be for naught. When you’re shaping your lists of keywords and topics to explore, keep this in mind, and be sure to make changes as appropriate. During the course of writing, editing, and publishing, you’ll also want to strike a balance here—don’t get too carried away by focusing exclusively on search optimization.

    At this point, you should have a good idea what keywords, topics, and demographics you want to target, and we can start looking at how to optimize for them.

    Content Features

    First, let’s look at the content features of your post. These are somewhat more approachable for novices, as they can be controlled during the writing and production process, and require virtually no technical expertise.

    Write a concise, powerful headline

    Your headline is going to serve a number of important functions, so you need to nail it. It’s one of the first things Google looks at when evaluating the topic of your piece, but even more importantly, it’s what most users will see when they encounter your article for the first time. In search engines, you’ll have more control over this “first impression” with title tags (which I’ll get into in the technical section), but don’t forget, users will be encountering your blog post on your actual blog, and on social media as well.

    Generally, you’ll want a headline that:

    • Is unlike any other headline out there. Otherwise, it won’t stand out.
    • Accurately describes your content. Otherwise, Google won’t index it properly and users will be disappointed.
    • Features one or more of your target keywords. This helps you rank for your targets.
    • Imply some value. Users only click on content that appears valuable in some way.
    • Conveys a sense of urgency. Get users to click immediately, or you’ll lose them forever.

    Powerful Headline

    (Image Source: AudienceBloom)

    Take a look at the headline I’ve cited above; it’s unique, offers a concise description (with a target keyword phrase), a value (for agencies), and urgency due to its importance.

    Include headers and sub-sections

    Your content should be broken down into sub-sections, no matter what your primary focus is. Even a short-form post should have at least a few paragraphs, and those paragraphs should be marked by headers. These headers and subsections help users visually identify how your article is organized, and help them skim your content; skimming isn’t ideal, but they’re going to do it anyway, so you might as well help them out. Your headers will also come in handy for helping Google to understand what your content is and how it’s organized—more on this when I touch on H1 header tags in the technical section.

    Prioritize introductory sentences                      

    The first sentences of your paragraphs and sub-sections get extra priority when Google crawls your content, so make them count. Take the one in this sub-section as an example; it clearly describes the main point without giving everything away up front. Include a keyword or two if you can, but focus most of your attention on setting up the sentences that follow. This is also important for users who are trying to speed read your article to get the gist of what you’re saying.

    Include images and videos

    Visual content is a major trend in the content marketing world, and for good reason. Posts with images and videos get far more shares and click-throughs than posts without them, users are increasingly spending time seeking images and videos rather than written content, and since visual content is harder to produce, there’s still a competitive advantage in being one of the few companies in your niche to pursue them. Having visuals in your content will make your piece bigger, better, more visible, and with a higher potential for going viral. Try to include at least one visual element in every piece you publish, preferably something original.

    Include your keyword phrase and conversational variations throughout your text

    This is a bit tricky, since there’s no “golden rule” for keyword inclusion. Generally, you’ll want to include your target keyword phrases at least a handful of times throughout the course of your document, but you also don’t want to run the risk of keyword stuffing. To avoid this risk, please your users, and make the most of the Hummingbird algorithm all at the same time, rely on conversational variations of your keyword phrases instead. Try to incorporate general terms for your target keywords, and talk about them in natural ways. Think of it like a date. Don’t try so hard to impress Google that you end up seeming awkward; just be yourself.

    Aim for long-form content when you can

    There’s no single rule that dictates the “ideal” length of a blog post, though we’ve taken a stab at trying to figure this out before. The truth is, both long-form and short-form content have advantages in SEO. On average, standout short-form pieces are more likely to earn links and shares. However, standout long-form pieces are more likely to, when they earn links and shares, earn far more links and shares. That’s a mouthful, but the takeaway is this—each has unique advantages and disadvantages, but if you do the work necessary to make a long-form piece successful, long-form has higher payoffs. Strive for length, as long as you can make that length valuable (no fluff).

    Proofread

    This is such a basic step I shouldn’t have to mention it. But the sad fact is, I do have to mention it. Though Google doesn’t penalize things like grammatical inconsistencies and poor spelling, these errors can have an indirect effect on your rank. Plus, if you’re suspected of using unnatural language, you could earn a direct penalty, and that’s not even mentioning the poor user experience effects it can have.

    Meta Data and Technical Factors

    Now, let’s look at some of the more technical factors of post optimization. These aren’t as technical as, say, creating a new navigation, or trying to optimize your site for mobile devices, but they have more to do with how the post is structured and interpreted by search crawlers than they do with your actual content.

    Write a catchy title tag

    Your title tag is what appears in Google search results as the blue hyperlinked text in every entry. Here’s a perfect example:

    Title Tag

    (Image Source: Google)

    As a general rule, as long as you have a good headline, you can use your headline as a double for the title tag. You might also want to include some text at the end, the way the example uses “REI expert advice” to optimize for a brand term and some peripheral keywords after the relatively short title. Feel free to include an addition keyword here, but be mindful that you aren’t over-optimizing.

    Generally, your title tag should be 50-60 characters. Any more than that, and Google will cut you off. Remember, you’ll also want to optimize your title tag for inbound users, making your title as appealing as possible to maximize click throughs.

    Write an accurate, descriptive meta tag

    Your meta description is a tag-team partner for your title tag. Here, you’ll have 150-160 characters to work with, so you get more breathing room and more opportunities to naturally include some of your target keyword phrases. This is the written text that appears under the title and link (see the example in the preceding section), so it’s another opportunity to capitalize on user interests on SERPs. It’s not as important as a title tag, for search engines or for users, but don’t neglect it.

    Include H1, H2, H3, etc. tags

    In my section on content considerations, I outlined the importance of including sub-sections with clearly marked headers. There’s also a technical component to this—you’ll need to include these bits of information with header tags for search engines to index and understand your content properly. Include an H1 tag for your first header, an H2 tag for your second, and so on, and remember to be as descriptive as possible.

    Header Tags

    (Image Source: Hobo)

    Ensure your URL is appropriate

    Most modern platforms will take the title of your article and make that the URL; this is good enough for most SEO strategies. There are just a handful of bad practices you’ll want to avoid to ensure your URLs are optimized for search engines and for users. For example, you’ll want to avoid excessive numbers and characters at the end of your URL string; these are incoherent and make it hard for users to share or remember links. You’ll need to include a breadcrumbs trail (though this is usually not an issue), and you’ll want to include at least one strong keyword in a useful description at the end of your URL.

    URL Rewrite

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Optimize your visual elements

    You know you need to include images and videos for SEO, but you also have to optimize them so search engines can understand them. These optimization tactics won’t increase the rank of your page directly, but will help your images and videos achieve higher visibility, which will indirectly drive more traffic to your page (and site).

    For images, this means giving the image an accurate title, resizing it so it can load quickly and properly, using alt tags to describe the image, and including a caption so your users know why you’ve chosen the image in the first place. It also helps to align your images with the edges of your piece.

    For video, this can be more complicated or less complicated depending on your goals. For example, if you’re merely embedding another person’s YouTube video, you don’t really have to do anything other than embedding it. However, if you’re running your own video content marketing strategy, you should engage in separate best practices for optimizing video so they can be found through search.

    Interlink your piece with other content you’ve written

    This is a seemingly minor step, but it’s an important one. Reference other posts you’ve written and other pages of your site in the body of each blog post you publish (within reason; usually three to five is plenty). Google favors sites whose pages are easy to get to; as a general rule, no page should ever be further than three clicks away from any other page. Interlinking helps strengthen the navigational “tightness” of your site, and furthermore, encourages users to spend more time on your site by leading them to different areas.

    Ensure your content is compatible and loads quickly on all devices and browsers

    This is another basic step, but you’d be surprised how many people miss it. Especially with embedded images and videos, you’ll want to do a “dry run” of your content and make sure it loads correctly on all types of devices and browsers. There are many tools for this, such as BrowserStack, so there’s no excuse not to investigate before finalizing your publication.

    Encourage subscriptions and comments

    The more your users engage with your piece, the more they’ll be willing to share it, the longer they’ll spend reading it, and the more authority you’ll earn for your efforts. Encourage your users to engage with your material by making it easy for people to leave comments (and by writing material that facilitates discussion in the first place).

    comment box

    (Image Source: AudienceBloom)

    You’ll also want to encourage your users to subscribe, to build your recurring readership and give a visibility boost to any pieces you write in the future. These can be RSS feeds or email newsletter subscriptions—anything that keeps your users coming back for more.

    Include share buttons

    Contrary to popular belief, social shares don’t pass authority the way that backlinks do. There’s some evidence to suggest that social signals are correlated with higher ranks, but it’s more likely that social shares are an indirect ranking signal. The more users share your piece, the more visible it becomes, and the more links it’s liable to earn. Those links are what are actually passing the authority. Because of this, social shares are important for SEO, just not in a direct way. It’s still in your best interest to capitalize on this correlational phenomenon, so make it easier for your users to share your content by including social share prompts at the bottom of every post.

    social media share buttons

    (Image Source: AudienceBloom)

    Offsite Content Considerations

    Up to this point, we’ve been examining considerations for onsite posts, but don’t forget that onsite content should only be one part of your SEO and content strategy. You also need to focus on optimizing your offsite content if you want to be successful.

    Fortunately, the same rules I’ve extensively outlined above are going to apply here (for the most part). For example, you’ll still need a good topic, a catchy headline, proper formatting, etc., but many of the technical factors are going to be out of your control. If you’re working with a high authority publisher, you can pretty much rest assured that these technical fixtures will be taken care of for you. However, there are a handful of special considerations you’ll need to bear in mind when producing and submitting offsite content:

    • Choose topics relevant for your publisher. When you choose topics, you’ll have to bear your audience, your goals, and your brand in mind, but when publishing offsite, there’s another variable you’ll have to consider—the publisher. During the early stages, this isn’t much of an issue; you’ll be primarily focusing on lower-authority publishers who won’t be picky about the types of content you submit and publishers well-aligned with your industry. But as you gain more experience and start working with publishers who have audiences in the hundreds of thousands or more, be prepared for some pushback and a delicate balancing act in optimizing a post that will still be accepted.
    • Include one strong link back to your domain. For the most part, one link is plenty. Google judges backlinks from any given domain on kind of a sliding scale; the first link from one source passes a ton of new authority, but any subsequent links on that same source will pass lower amounts of authority. Even worse, if you try to deliberately stuff your article with backlinks, you’ll either be rejected by the publisher outright or you’ll be penalized by Google for spamming links—not a pretty picture. Instead, make sure your link is valuable and relevant for your audience.
    • Optimize your link’s anchor text. You’ll also need to optimize the anchor text for your link—the text in which your link is embedded. Old-school SEO practices dictate that you should include your keyword phrase here, but this practice is somewhat obsolete. Instead, your text should be optimized to describe what it is your link is pointing to. For example, I could introduce another blog by saying, “I discuss more about content marketing in my recent blog post on finding competitive advantages with content.” Notice how the hyperlinked text is overtly and sensibly descriptive, and naturally contains a couple of keywords that could be associated with the piece.
    • Be aware of special meta data considerations. Your source of choice may have certain preferences or certain systems that prevent you from creating your own meta data or otherwise have strict standards on what data can be created. For example, they may mandate you create a tagline, but take charge of providing all titles and descriptions themselves. This isn’t as important as you might think, since this is an article on their site, not yours, and they have a vested interest in getting as much traffic as possible. Don’t be afraid to relinquish some control here.

    You’ll also need to be aware that different publishers will have different systems, processes, and standards. You’ll have to adapt if you want to make the most of all of them.

    Consistency and Adaptation

    Now that you know the ins and outs of how to optimize a blog post for SEO, there are just two more general rules you’ll need to follow to be successful. The first is a rule of consistency. You can’t pick and choose when you follow these best practices, or only follow some of them, if you want to succeed in the long run. You need to apply these optimization tactics to every piece you publish, no matter what. Overall, these tactics will help you write better, more valuable user-focused content, and the few technical tweaks you need to make should only take you a few minutes each to complete. It’s well worth the extra investment, but only if you do so consistently.

    The other rule is one of adaptation. People don’t produce perfect content on the first try, ever. You won’t write perfect titles or meta descriptions, and you won’t target the “perfect” set of keywords in your first run. Give your strategy some time to marinate and prove its worth, but if something’s not working, you can’t be afraid to change it. Pick a variable, make an adjustment, and see if things approve. Repeat as necessary until you start seeing the results you want.

    With all these practices in place, you should have complete control over your blog optimization strategy. Though it’s only one piece of the SEO puzzle, it’s a powerful one, and you should start to reap the rewards in mere weeks.

  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. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. The Ultimate System for Creating Viral Content

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    The term “viral content” has become viral in its own right. With the majority of business owners and marketers today engaging in some kind of content marketing (or at least recognizing it as a powerful marketing agent), the idea of spiking past the realm of “normal” results with viral content is tantalizing.

    Despite frequent claims of having the “secret” to creating viral content, few marketing authorities have ventured into the science behind virally shared content, and none have come up with a verifiable, systematic process to create new viral content; the former is elusive, and the latter is impossible.

    Instead of proposing a “guaranteed formula for success” or the “secret to making content viral,” I’m going to lay out some irrefutable truths about viral content, debunk some serious misconceptions, and hopefully give you a model that can lead you to the creation of better—if not viral—content for your campaign.

    Defining “Viral” Content

    First, it’s helpful to define exactly what viral content is—or at least what I mean by it. The phrase has become a buzzword, often abused and manipulated to fit into different contexts. The term, of course, comes from the word “viral,” as in, spreading like a virus. Much like a single person carrying a disease can get an entire office sick, and that office can infect an entire neighborhood, a single piece of effective, “viral” content can be shared socially to exponentially increasing audience sizes.

    There aren’t any strict definitions on what constitutes “viral”—a video with 15 million views, an article with 1 million shares, and an infographic with 100 links pointing to it could all be considered viral in their own contexts. For our purposes, the term “viral” will apply to any piece of content that is circulated, socially or otherwise, many times more than an average, similar piece.

    The Goals

    For most brands, getting more visibility is a good thing. But let’s explore the myriad benefits even a single piece of viral content can offer:

    • Brand visibility. Having more people share your piece of content means more people will see your brand, some of which will be getting an impression of you for the first time.
    • Brand authority. Having a widely cited piece makes you seem like more of an authority; circulate enough viral pieces and you’ll become known as a leading authority in your industry.
    • Social followers. If even a tenth of the people who encounter your content follow you on social media in the hopes of seeing more, a single piece of viral content can net you hundreds to thousands of permanent new social followers. This effect is amplified due to the fact that most viral content is shared on social media in the first place.
    • Increased readership. Those interested in your piece will likely return to your blog (and thus, your website) in the future to find more information. Higher regular readership means more opportunities for conversion.
    • Inbound links. Generally, when content is syndicated and appreciated en masse, it earns tons of inbound links, which in turn pass authority to your site and make it easier for you to rank for your target keywords. Take a look at this viral infographic on the daily routines of famous people as an example, which earned 71 independent links (and growing):

    inbound links

    (Image Source: Podio)

    podio open site explorer

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Keep in mind that “viral” content achieves these goals to a degree much higher than ordinary “good” content. If you charted out all the links and shares that all the content in the world received, it wouldn’t follow a normalized pattern, or a typical bell curve. Instead, what you see is a massive spike of shares and links for a very small minority of pieces:

    total shares all networks

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Assuming it takes the same amount of effort to produce a “viral” piece of content and the next-best tier of content quality, you can expect the viral piece to perform more than 5 times better! One small step in quality leads to an enormous leap in results.

    Realistic Expectations

    Just because there are ways to increase your likelihood of going viral doesn’t mean it’s a sure path. There is always a degree of unpredictability, and you need to be prepared for that. You may have a piece that, scientifically, meets all the criteria to go viral fall flat, and conversely, a seeming flop could skyrocket to success—just take Flappy Bird as an example.

    flappy bird

    (Image Source: Wikipedia)

    Moral of the story: users are weird. Take my following advice with a grain of salt, and strive for overall improvements rather than celebrity-level popularity in your landmark pieces.

    General Principles of Viral Content

    We know what viral content is, and what it can’t be. We know that “something” makes a piece popular or appealing enough for massive numbers of users to share it with other users, but what is that “something?” There’s no single or simple definition, so instead I’m going to explore a number of different qualities that, in combination with each other, can spark a piece of content to explode in popularity.

    Valence

    According to a study of 7,000 New York Times articles, valence is a significant factor in determining whether a piece will “go viral.” Specifically, positive content has a higher degree of virality than negative content. If you read headlines regularly, this may come as a surprise to you—after all, the media is frequently criticized for being too negative, and most of your friends will agree that reading the news is “depressing.” However, positively positioned pieces always outperform negative ones in terms of shareability. Keep this in mind when debating between angles like “why you’ll always be a failure” or “why you always have a shot at success.”

    Emotionality

    There are two dimensions of emotionality: initial stimulation, and contagiousness. In the former, the reader has an individual, independent “gut reaction” to your piece. In the latter, the reader sees a potential for other users to have this gut reaction.

    Initial stimulation is important because it draws a reader in, and makes them connect to the piece. Contagiousness is important because readers have a natural tendency to try and strike up emotions in other readers, particularly friends and family members. Both require a strong emotional foundation in order to trigger a viral event.

    What emotions are most effective?

    emotions

    (Image Source: Harvard Business Review)

    Anticipation, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise, fear, trust, and joy all have hotspots in the outermost and innermost edges of this emotional chart, with anticipation, trust, and surprise (more on surprise later) having especially strong tendencies to encourage shares. People naturally want others to feel these emotions when they feel them internally—so pieces charged with these emotions naturally get more shares.

    Practicality

    Instigating an emotion with a positive twist isn’t enough, however. To become viral, there must be some level of practicality to a piece. It doesn’t have to be a tutorial, or some life-changing piece of information, but it does have to add value to a person’s life one way or another.

    “Life hacks,” a viral idea in their own right, have become incredibly popular, even leading to the development of sites like Lifehacker and Lifehack.org. These sites revolve around dispensing practical, actionable information, and as a result, their pieces have achieved massive, lasting popularity and social syndication.

    Take this, one of Lifehacker’s most popular all-time pieces, with 5 million views:

    Lifehacker viral content piece

    (Image Source: Lifehacker)

    People see a title like this and can usually think of at least one time or occasion this information would have been extremely useful; they pass it on to others half to be a Good Samaritan and half to demonstrate their resourcefulness. Without digging too deep into the psychology here, know that practicality is always a good thing.

    Defying Expectations

    Going back to the “surprise” element I touched on in the emotional section, it’s important to know that defying user expectations is a major factor in determining the virality of a piece. If a piece conforms to expectations, no matter how useful or entertaining it is, it’s not worth sharing, in the same way that your morning commute isn’t worth remembering unless something unusual happens along the way.

    Take the story of the red paper clip as an example. You may remember this story from back in 2005; an active Craigslist participant started with a red paper clip, trading various items for items of slightly higher value, until he eventually traded for an entire house. This house:

    house traded on craigslist

    (Image Source: Wikipedia)

    If the piece were about a similar failed attempt, or about how someone traded a paperclip for a binder clip, or anything “usual,” it never would have circulated. Instead, it took users by surprise—even to the brink of disbelief.

    Attention

    It’s a sad fact of the content world that it’s possible to get lots of shares without anyone actually reading your material. People form fast first impressions when they see your headline, so if you want to go viral, you need a headline, image, or other first impression that hooks readers immediately.

    One good way to do this is to stir up controversy; state an opinion on a matter that is strongly debated. If you want to hedge your bets and avoid aggressively polarizing topics, you can stick to “soft” forms of controversy:

    controversial images

    (Image Source: HelpScout)

    The above example is highly debatable, yet doesn’t have high stakes or consequences. As you can see, it earned 12,372 shares.

    Weight

    This probably goes without saying, but the rule of weightiness applies to every other qualification on this list; you have to exhibit qualities to a strong degree if you want to reap their rewards. For example, don’t be scary, be terrifying. Don’t be just somewhat debatable. Don’t be kind of surprising. With viral content, it’s definitely a case of “go big or go home.”

    Variability

    The original term wasn’t invented to describe dumb trends on the Internet, but viral content truly is a good example of a meme. Memes are a cultural substitute for genes in an evolutionary environment, and like genes, they draw their power from selective pressures and variability. A small variation on an existing social more could be enough to make something go viral—like a parody video:

    151 million views for this. Seriously.

    That variability can also apply to your content’s ability to be changed by users. For example, take the rampant popularity of the “Ice Bucket Challenge” just a few years back:

    Countless celebrities, companies, and individuals participated in this challenge, and many of them racked up millions of views and shares.

    The key takeaway here is that variability is powerful; it gives users a bit of what they’re used to, and something surprising at the same time. If implemented properly, it also encourages a degree of audience participation, which is always a good thing for a brand.

    Quality

    I hesitate to use the word “quality” here because it’s so vague, but it’s important to recognize. Let’s say you’ve conducted some surprising, exciting, positive research and you’re presenting it in a piece of long-form content. Theoretically, your material has all the right ingredients, but your body copy is riddled with awkward phrasing and spelling errors. Do you think you’ll still attract the same amount of attention? Let’s say you have an awesome idea for a video, but the final production is grainy and the sound quality is horrible. Will it still succeed?

    Your content needs to be detailed, concise, well-researched, polished, and proofread to the point of perfection. Otherwise, even great ideas will fall flat.

    The Self-Perpetuation of Popularity.

    One more note before I move onto the next section; popularity is a self-perpetuating mechanism. That is to say, once it reaches a certain threshold, content will start earning shares simply because it already has a lot of shares. As an anecdotal example, have you ever watched a YouTube video simply because you heard it had millions of views? Of course you have. We all have. We trust the general consensus—more than we should sometimes—but this is important to recognize in the pursuit of viral content.

    To go viral, then, you don’t need to produce content worthy of 10 million shares on its own. Even getting 1 million could instantly propel you to 10. Similarly, getting 100,000 could help you get to 1 million, and so on down the line. I’ll touch on this a bit more later, in my “Igniting the Fire” section, but know that sometimes, just a few more shares is all you need to start a chain reaction, and accordingly, just a few small improvements to your content can help it cross into that new territory.

    Finding the Right Format

    I’ve covered the “ingredients” for a viral piece of content somewhat exhaustively, but how can you package those ingredients?

    There are dozens of different mediums, formats, and niches of content, all of which could theoretically support a piece of content with high virality. Take a look at this chart of some of the top-performing content types, according to a recent study by Moz and BuzzSumo covering 1 million pieces of content:

    content types

    (Image Source: Moz)

    List posts, quizzes, why posts, how-to posts, infographics, and videos are all popular formats, but how do you know which one to choose? How do you know if you’re using it correctly?

    Know Your Audience

    First things first: you need to know your audience inside and out. Yes, hopefully your content will become so popular even general audience members will catch wind of it, but you need a committed initial circle of supporters, and that means you have to write to a specific demographic. Market research can help you here, but it’s better if you rely on data you’ve gathered yourself; take a look at how previous content topics have performed in the past, and how users react to different changes in your overall content campaign. This should help guide you in the right direction in terms of content angles, brand voice, and multimedia integrations that your audience prefers.

    With that said, I want to explore four main brackets of content that you should consider for your “viral” target.

    Long-Form Content

    Long-form content is content longer than 1,000 words. Generally speaking, the longer a piece of content is, the more shares and links it’s going to receive:

    long form content

     

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that longer content is always better; you still have to adhere to all the standards I outlined above, and keep your content concise enough that every word still matters. Still, this is a convincing argument that long-form content is the best “type” of content to pursue. It requires more of an upfront investment of time and money, but it’s well worth it to get an adjusted average of nearly 6,000 shares and 11 referring domain links.

    The key to long-form content is making it meaningful. Don’t write 10,000 words to cover 1,000 words of information, or your piece will fall flat. Accordingly, your choice of topic will play a major role in determining how your piece ultimately performs.

    Short-Form Content

    This isn’t to say that short-form content is inherently less valuable. If a viral piece of short-form content only earns a tenth of the potential shares that a long-form piece receives, it may still be worth it if it only took a tenth of the effort.

    Short-form viral content, then, is a balancing act between effort and reward. This isn’t to say that you should downplay your efforts, or rush through short-form content, but there are certain formats (list posts, quizzes, etc.) that are naturally less intensive to create than others (original research, extended essays, etc.).

    The key to short-form content is to keep it fast and concise. Give people the ability to scan through your content and get the gist of it in mere seconds without sacrificing your emotional appeal or the strength of your work.

    Images

    When it comes to producing a “viral” image—simpler is often better. Take a look at one of the most popular infographics of the past year:

    coca-cola infographics

    (Image Source: Creative Bloq)

    How many graphic elements do you notice here? It’s a can of Coca-Cola on a solid background, yet it generated an impressive number of shares because it contained ample interesting information. In fact, it’s almost closer to a short-form content piece than it is an image.

    Don’t think that you need to stuff your images full of information, either; artistic images, without any written information whatsoever, can also go viral. Remember this from the 2014 Oscars?

    2014 Oscars Selfie

    (Image Source: TIME)

    Snapping an image like this is like capturing lightning in a bottle; it’s incredibly difficult to predict or execute, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be successful on your first try. Infographics, on the other hand, can be constructed the way a written post can. It’s in your best interest to experiment with both, though the latter is much more controllable.

    Successful images need to form an immediate first impression, and since there are some viral elements they can’t carry as well as written work (such as practicality), you need to make up for it by strengthening its other elements.

    Keep in mind that images don’t have to be an exclusive medium unto themselves—incorporating images into your written content is a solid strategy for increasing shares as well.

    Videos

    Video is a complex medium deserving of its own full-fledged guide, so I’ll strive to cover only the basics here.

    Like written content, video comes in both short-form and long-form varieties. Long-form is more intensive and more useful, while short-form is faster and more reactive. Use both these types to your advantage when creating video, and always keep your quality as high as possible.

    Though you can get traction by making a video on pretty much anything, the best viral videos show off the capabilities of the medium, using audio and visual elements to tell a story. If you’re simply reading off a page (like in an interview) or if you have animation with no music or audio cues, you may end up with a good video—but it’s unlikely to be a viral one.

    All of the elements for virality I listed above apply to videos, but one of the most important is defying user expectations; YouTube has a billion users watching hundreds of millions of hours’ worth of content every day. They’ve pretty much seen everything, so if you want to motivate them to share your video, you have to do the impossible—show them what they haven’t seen.

    Again, as with images, you don’t have to use video as a standalone piece; you can use it as an enhancement to a written piece instead.

    Igniting the Fire

    As I mentioned before, there’s a critical threshold for viral content; you need to achieve a certain number of shares before you can start reaping the compounding benefits of logarithmic cascades of shares; think of it as a snowball needing to achieve a certain mass and shape before it’s capable of rolling down a hill and accumulating more mass on its own.

    Accordingly, drafting a good piece of content isn’t the end of your journey. Producing viral content is like gathering wood for a fire; you may have the potential to burn bright, long into the night, but unless you provide the initial spark, you won’t achieve anything. Give your content momentum by pushing it out to your social media audience, syndicating it through social bookmarking sites, engaging users in dialogue, responding to commenters, encouraging your employees to share the piece on their own accounts, and promoting the piece through influencer relationships or even a paid advertising boost. These small steps can, cumulatively, give your piece the initial momentum it needs to start generating visibility on its own—as long as it’s good enough.

    Conclusion

    By this point, I’ve taught you everything there is to know about producing and marketing viral content. I wish there was an actionable “secret” that could guarantee results, but if there was, everybody would be using it, and the very phenomenon of virality would ebb away. Instead, take viral content for what it is: a practical, yet somewhat unpredictable phenomenon that you can increase your probability of achieving but never firmly reach.

    Thankfully, most of the best practices for viral content—positivity, practicality, emotional appeal, etc.—will make your content inherently better in the first place, so striving for viral content will nearly guarantee you better results on some level. As you spend more time and effort investing in your viral content strategy, you’ll learn new insights about your audience, new techniques to apply to your approach, and old tactics that just aren’t working for you anymore.

    As long as you don’t get too caught up in the sensationalism of virality, learning from and pursuing viral content will make you a better marketer. And after all, that’s what most of us are after in the first place.

  10. What People Look for in SaaS: Data and Exercises to Help You Perfect Your SaaS Brand

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    SaaS (Software as a Service) providers are a unique business niche; no matter what function your product serves, or what your target audience is, certain characteristics of your infrastructure are a given:

    • Your core product is a piece of software that either makes a task easier or provides new information.
    • You make money through a monthly/yearly subscription.
    • Your software is centrally hosted, accessible via the cloud.
    • Your software features multitenancy, and you have a high potential to scale.

    Beyond that, SaaS providers cover tons of different areas—accounting, marketing, customer management, project coordination, and antivirus programs are just a handful of examples. Still, most SaaS face similar challenges when it comes to branding and identity (which I’ll cover a bit later in my “Key Challenges” section). Overcoming these obstacles is necessary if you want to successfully market your SaaS business, as branding is at the core of any marketing campaign. Think about it—how could you possibly communicate to your customers effectively, if you don’t know what makes your company unique?

    This feature is designed to guide you through the most important components of SaaS brand identity, identify the key challenges you face over your development, lend you exercises with which to hone your brand, and introduce some key areas for practical application. Regardless of whether you’re building a brand from scratch or redefining yours in an effort to reconnect with your customers, I hope this guide will serve you well.

    Core Components of Brand Identity

    First, I want to explore each of the “core components” of brand identity, and how SaaS providers can maximize the value of their approach in each area. In each section, I’ll introduce the nature of the component, provide some examples of SaaS companies who have succeeded in those areas, and note key considerations you’ll have to bear in mind when determining that key area for your business.

    Keep in mind that one of the most important factors for brand success is differentiation; you shouldn’t copy the brand strategy of any existing SaaS company, nor should you rigorously adhere to my “rules for success.” Instead, use these as inspiration and rough guidelines, respectively, to fuel your own creative process.

    Mission

    First up is your company’s mission. This is often characterized as a “mission statement,” but it’s not imperative that you be that formal or concise. In fact, you can have a lengthy, multifaceted mission—as long as it’s relevant to your audience.

    What is a mission, exactly? It’s what your company intends to accomplish in the SaaS world. Don’t think of it as what you see yourself being in a few years—that’s going to come later as the “vision” component of your brand—this of it as the present. Who are you, right now? What are you striving for?

    The simple answer to this is “we help our customers _____,” and this isn’t a wrong or bad approach, but it’s one that almost every SaaS company latches onto. If you want to be successful, you have to differentiate yourself. People gravitate toward SaaS companies that offer something unique.

    Take a look at how Concur demonstrates its mission—it isn’t in a formalized “mission statement” on an About page—it makes itself evident in a company description:

    concur

    (Image Source: Concur)

    What key traits do you take away here? Saving money is important, as is improving productivity, but Concur also pushes their high level of flexibility. Their mission is one of adaptation and all-around service. Imagine the difference: what if this page only talked about how Concur saves you money? Chances are you’d be far less compelled to learn more about the company or the product.

    SaaS companies are all about making customers’ lives easier, so your mission statement should reflect that—just not in an ambiguous way. This is your chance to prove what you’re all about.

    Vision

    Many people confuse a company’s mission and vision—and on the surface, they sound the same. However, a mission refers to a company’s current disposition and structure, where a vision refers to a company’s view of the future. This is an opportunity not only to show users how you operate and what your goals are, but also what they can expect from you in the future.

    Because SaaS companies offer subscription rates, usually over the course of the long-term, people want to find a provider they can stick with for many years. Because SaaS relies on technology, people want a provider that’s willing to adapt and innovate over those years. Accordingly, your vision statement needs to include some degree of accelerated growth, innovation, or futurism.

    Take a look at what SalesForce does here:

    salesforce

    (Image Source: SalesForce)

    This is kind of a retroactive vision statement, but it’s a great example of conciseness: “reinventing CRM in the cloud.” Imagine the difference: what if, instead of revolutionizing their niche, SalesForce’s vision was something vanilla like “making CRM easier well into the future.” It’s certainly not as exciting, is it?

    Again, don’t just carbon-copy this by making your brand’s vision “reinventing ____” or “improving ____.” Dig deep and find out where you really want to be in five years, and communicate that in the most concise way you can.

    Values

    Your company values tell customers what your company really cares about, and they can range from customer service values to real-world social responsibility values.

    What do people want to see in a SaaS provider? Anything in line with the service’s function that doesn’t boil down to raw profitability. For example, if your values only center on making money and keeping your product in good working order, people won’t exactly line up to start subscribing. Instead, find a selection of values, perspectives, and opinions that characterize your brand, and put them to good use in practical applications.

    Take a look at the following examples from AthenaHealth:

    athena-health

    athena-health-website

    (Image Source: AthenaHealth)

    AthenaHealth’s home page makes their values clear: improving the healthcare industry. The cycling banner with the tagline “let doctors be doctors” is a clue that the service wants to give doctors a better chance to utilize their all-important skillsets. The company backs that up on another page, demonstrating their participation in the AthenaGives project, where they volunteer and make charitable donations to improve healthcare support in local communities. Imagine the difference: you could easily imagine a company like AthenaHealth positioning themselves to save doctors money, or make healthcare more profitable, but think of the bad impression that might leave users with.

    You don’t have to donate to charity to exhibit strong values, but you do have to show that your company truly cares about people, one way or another. You’re asking people to engage with a digital brand for digital goods, so a humanization element is vital if you want to build trust.

    Unique Value Proposition

    There are hundreds of SaaS companies out there, many of which overlap in terms of service provision. What makes yours special? What makes yours worth the money? The combination of your answers should lead you to your “unique value proposition.”

    In the SaaS sphere, this is incredibly important. People don’t need SaaS technology like they need food or water, and they can easily shop around to find and analyze your competitors. If you want people to gravitate toward your brand, you need to strongly display the factors that make you worth the money and unlike anyone else on the market.

    This can be tough, but take a look at ServiceNow as an example:

    service-now

    (Image Source: ServiceNow)

    This page continues to scroll. Rather than trying to give you a bulleted list of advantages, ServiceNow offers a blend of customer reviews, testimonials, statistics, and case studies to demonstrate why its platform is uniquely valuable. Here, this boils down to a high ROI and service with a personal touch—somewhat general value propositions, but very effectively demonstrated. Imagine the difference: what if, instead of this page, ServiceNow simply had a list of software features with a price tag at the end?

    Specificity is your best friend here. Don’t just say “we offer a high ROI,” give a percentage figure. Don’t say “we have great customer service,” display a quote from a real customer who could agree with this statement.

    Personality

    SaaS is, by nature, an alienating, digital business. For the most part, you buy it, use it, learn it, and get help with it exclusively online without any help from an individual. People crave a human, personal experience, so the only way to bridge this gap is to inject your brand with more personality.

    What that personality is depends on your angle, your niche, and of course, your key demographics; a young startup entrepreneur won’t respond to the same personality traits that a middle-aged business owner might.

    Of course, how you position yourself is entirely up to you. You might go for a more experienced, professional, classy voice, or a more casual, energetic, humorous voice. Whatever you choose, keep it consistent across all your pages and channels.

    Slack provides a great example of a company with a light, humorous, casual tone:

    slack-blog

    (Image Source: Slack)

    We’ll also touch on Slack’s strategy as it relates to social media a little later on. Imagine the difference: if Slack adopted a more corporate, formal tone, how would you imagine that to affect its customer relationships?

    Pick a personality that suits your mission and key demographics, and don’t be afraid to throw elements of your own personality into the mix. To be effective, it needs to be sincere.

    Visuals

    Finally, we get to visuals, which most people think of first when they think of a “brand.” Your visual elements should include far more than just your logo and your company’s color scheme, though those are also important elements to decide. For example, bright, vibrant colors could showcase a fun, energetic brand, while blacks, whites, and precision fonts could showcase a sleek, all-business brand; there’s a lot of wiggle room here.

    There’s one major consideration to bear in mind for the SaaS industry, however; your product will live or die by its user experience, and customers know this. The visual layout of your software itself needs to be seamless, user friendly, and in line with the rest of your brand. Furthermore, your layout should be shown off every chance you get.

    Take a look at how WorkDay shows off its software on the homepage:

    workday

    (Image Source: workday)

    Imagine the difference: what if WorkDay didn’t display any visual features of its software except on the Demo page. You’d feel a little lost, right? Also imagine what the brand experience would be like if it were less colorful, on a black background, with a more formalized font—not necessarily bad, but certainly different. Carefully consider how your visuals communicate your brand’s nature.

    Key Challenges

    Now that I’ve addressed all the individual elements that should make up a SaaS brand, I want to move on to some of the biggest challenges SaaS brands face during development. You can either address these head-on, one by one, or simply keep them in mind as you develop your brand across different areas, but either way, you can’t afford to neglect them.

    • Subscription services are long-term investments. Your customers need to know that they can trust you. How can you demonstrate and build this trust within your brand standards? For example, should you let your customers do the talking for you in a distant, yet logical appeal? Should you mention your past, current, and future goals in your vision? Should you aim for a super-friendly, casual voice to make your business more approachable? There’s no one right answer, but trust is imperative.
    • It bears repeating; don’t just copy another SaaS company’s brand. If your company looks like another that already exists, customers are going to go with the one they heard of first. You have to differentiate yourself in a meaningful way. Does that mean creating compelling new visuals? Offering a bolder mission statement? Doing more to serve the community? The angle is up to you.
    • Return on Investment (ROI). Most SaaS companies are B2B, meaning your customers will be making most of their decisions based on a financial bottom line. How is your service going to save them money (or time)? You need to demonstrate this clearly in your messaging.
    • You won’t be there in person to negotiate a deal or answer questions your potential customers have. You can offer a price point and an assurance that your software can do “X, Y, and Z,” but what proof does your brand have? What promises are you making, and how are you backing those promises? Customer reviews, testimonials, guarantees, and ongoing customer relationships are all enormous tools to improve your brand potential.
    • The sales cycle for SaaS companies is incredibly short, especially when compared to other B2B ventures. Customers often make a decision based on first impressions, or at most after a few days of research. Your brand can’t just be good; it has to be good, and communicable in the span of mere moments. How can you reduce everything your brand is to a single image? A single message? A single webpage?
    • Finally, you have to be consistent across all your platforms, which is tricky for a SaaS company. Your engineers, marketers, social managers, and customer support team all need to be in line with the same voice. In fact, your brand should be a reflection of your internal company culture—but that’s a topic for another day.

    Exercises for SaaS Brand Development

    With those considerations and challenges in mind, you should have a rough idea of what you want your brand (or new brand) to be. This outline is far from perfect, and you might have a good idea of the “feel” of your brand in your head, but great difficulty putting it into words. This is the challenge of branding; it isn’t numerical or tangible, so it’s notoriously tough to pin down. However, these exercises can help you quantify, polish, and elaborate on your brand.

    The Different Hats Method

    One of the best ways to find out which traits fit your brand is to find out which traits don’t fit your brand. Start out by making a change in one key area and listing the differences it would have for your user experience. For example, let’s say you want your brand to have a casual, informal voice. What if you started using corporate jargon and longer, more formally structured sentences? How might your customers react? Let’s say one element of your UVP is the provision immediate customer service. What if you replaced this with a robust, interactive self-help portal in your app?

    This test has a few different benefits:

    • You’ll gain a stronger understanding of your chosen qualities’ effects, and you can tweak them accordingly.
    • You’ll force yourself to verbalize and distinguish your core brand qualities, which you can then publish when your work is complete.
    • You might discover an angle that resonates even stronger with your target audience (at least conceptually).

    The Personality Test

    Instead of describing your brand objectively, imagine your brand as a person. This is a test that helps you “get to know” your brand better, and will help you find and use a suitable voice for it. What type of person is this? What is their age and sex? Where do they live? What do they do for fun? What are their passions? How do they talk to you? How do they dress? Don’t be afraid to ask the silly questions; all of them can help you better understand your brand.

    The Essence Experiment

    The essence experiment is an exercise in minimalism. It will help you cut out the white noise of your branding strategy and zero in on the priorities that matter. First, describe the “essence” of your brand in a single word. No cheating; make a list of different one-word responses that could characterize your brand if you have to, but ultimately, you need to settle on one. This is your “master” word, the essence of your company, and it should permeate every application of your brand. Then, do this for each aspect of your company—for example, summarize your mission in one word (e.g., “efficiency,” “adaptability,” “unburdening.”) Summarize your UVP in one word (e.g., “care,” “universality,” “speed.”), and so on.

    Key Applications

    Once your brand is established, there’s no shortage of potential applications for you to harness it.

    Web Design

    Your home page is going to make your users’ first impressions, so show everything there is to know about your brand in the smallest possible space. Try to use as few words as possible to concisely describe your idea, and use your design scheme to give users a “feel” that matches your brand personality. You can expand on individual elements of your brand on your internal pages.

    Advertising

    The core of your ads should be your brand image, voice, and personality. Without this, users won’t be able to connect your message to your company, and they certainly won’t be able to remember you. Again, minimalism and conciseness are your friends; use the results of your “essence” experiment above to help you come up with targeted messages that demonstrate your brand accurately, and don’t forget to tailor your message to your audience.

    Content Marketing

    Content is your opportunity to “put your money where your mouth is,” so to speak. Let’s say your mission is to help users improve their social media campaigns; what are you doing to help them beyond the services your product offers? Sprout Social offers a resource library for such a purpose, complete in their signature brand voice:

    sprout-social

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    There’s no right or wrong way to use content, but it must be in line with your brand values, and demonstrate your authority in your niche. Even if you use different authors, all your work must remain consistent in your brand voice; otherwise, your users will have an inconsistent experience and be less likely to return.

    Social Media Marketing

    For SaaS companies, social media serves many purposes; it’s a sales tool, a mechanism for social proof, and can even be used as a customer service platform. However, if you want to be effective, you need to use a consistent brand voice throughout your posts, and adhere to your selected brand values. Take a look at how Slack manages to maintain it’s casual, almost-snarky brand voice on its Twitter account:

    slack

    Help and Tutorials

    Your help and tutorials sections are what will keep your users around and using your software—especially if they end up having issues. But it also speaks volumes about your commitment to customer satisfaction from a newcomer’s perspective. Think of this as an additional wing of your content strategy, and prove both your expertise and your prioritization of customer experience. It goes a long way to establish trust, especially early on.

    Going Forward

    When it comes to a brand, consistency is one of your best tools for success; keep your branding consistent across all your platforms, and you should have no problem building a loyal audience. However, don’t mistake consistency for immovability—your brand is a living, breathing creation, and should evolve as you learn more information about your customers and grow your company in new directions. Keep the core elements, the essence, of your brand close to your original vision, but don’t be afraid to gradually branch out with new approaches and new applications.

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-The AudienceBloom Team