Search engine optimization (SEO), to the outsider, is a frustrating, complicated mess. Google doesn’t publish how its algorithm works (though it does give us helpful hints), and there are hundreds of independent, technical variables that can determine how your site ranks.
If you don’t have experience with programming or website building, technical factors like meta titles, site structure, and XML sitemaps can seem intimidating and difficult to approach. And while it’s true that experience pays off—a novice won’t get the same results as someone with years of experience—the reality is that SEO is more learnable than you probably give it credit for.
I’ve put together this guide to help the technically challenged folks out there—the ones new to SEO, or those unfamiliar with coding and website structure—to illustrate the basics of SEO, and simplify some of the more complicated techniques and considerations you’ll need to get results.
First, I want to cover the “big picture” of SEO, because the “technical,” intimidating stuff is only a fraction of what’s actually involved in your search rankings. The goal of SEO is to increase your search visibility, which in turn will increase your site traffic.
Google ranks sites based on a combination of two broad categories: relevance and authority. Relevance is how closely the content of a page is going to meet a user’s needs and expectations; for example, if the user asks a question, Google wants to find a webpage that answers it. Authority is a measure of how trustworthy or authoritative the source of the content is.
Your tactics will usually involve building your authority, increasing your relevance for targeted queries, or both, across three main areas of optimization:
On-site optimization. On-site optimization is the process of making your site more visible, more authoritative, and easier for Google’s web crawlers to parse and understand. Many of these tweaks and strategies involve technical changes to your site, including adjustments to your backend code and other structural site changes.
Ongoing content marketing. Content marketing is the best way to build your authority and relevance on-site over time; you’ll have the chance to choose topics and optimize for keyword phrases your target audience will use, and simultaneously create content that proves your authoritativeness on the subject.
Off-site optimization (link building). Off-site optimization is a collection of tactics designed to promote your on-site content and improve your authority by building links to your site. The quantity and quality of links pointing to your site has a direct influence on how much authority your site is perceived to have.
The Technical Stuff
Don’t worry. I’m going to make this as painless as possible. In this section, I’m going to cover most of the “technical” SEO elements that you’ll need to consider for your campaign. These are changes you’ll need to make to your site, factors you’ll need to consider or monitor, and potential technical issues that could come up during your campaign. I’m going to cover these as simply and as thoroughly as possible—so you can understand them and use them, no matter how much technical experience you have.
When you go to a library for information, librarians can probably help you by finding a book. But no matter how relevant a book may be to your interests, it won’t matter if the book isn’t currently on the shelves. Libraries must acquire books as they’re released, updating old copies and adding new copies, to keep the most recent information on the shelves.
Search indexing works similarly. To provide results, Google needs to maintain shelves of “books,” in this case, a running archive of websites and pages that are available on the web. Google uses automated bots, sometimes known as “crawlers” or “spiders” to continually search the web for new page entries, which it then logs in its central system.
How is this relevant for you? If you want to be listed in search engines, and be listed accurately, you need to make sure your site is indexed correctly.
There are three main approaches you can take for search indexing:
Passive. The first approach is the easiest, and probably the best for SEO newcomers. Google wants to keep the books on its shelves updated, so it makes an effort to crawl sites completely on its own. In the passive approach, you’ll simply wait for Google to index your site, and trust its best judgment when it comes to canonicalizing your URL structures. For this method, you don’t have to do anything; you simply pass the reins to Google and let it take care of the indexing work. The only potential disadvantage here, other than forfeiting some degree of control, is that it sometimes takes more time for Google to update its index—up to a few weeks for new sites and new material.
Active. The active approach allows you to update the URL structures and hierarchies on your site using an on-site site map. Known as an HTML sitemap, this is easy to create (so long as you’re familiar with the process of creating new pages on your site). Create a page called “Sitemap” and list all the pages on your site you want Google to index, separated into categories and subcategories as appropriate, to provide hints to bots as to how your links interact with one another. You should also include descriptions to identify what each link is used for (briefly). This doesn’t guarantee indexation, but can help clarify confusion and speed up the indexing process. The major disadvantage here is that you’ll need to adjust it every time you make changes to your site, unless you use an automatic sitemap solution which updates itself any time you publish new pages. There are WordPress plugins which offer this functionality.
Direct. In the direct route, you’ll create an XML sitemap—which is different from an HTML sitemap. It’s essentially a txt file that contains a list of your site’s URLs, with descriptions that inform search engines how to consider and index your links, in relation to one another. Once done, you’ll upload it directly to Google. This is a fair bit more complex than an HTML sitemap, but is manageable if you take the time to read Google’s instructions properly. This isn’t necessary, but could be useful in speeding up the initial indexing process and clarifying canonical confusion (which I’ll talk about more in a future section).
You’ll also need to consider creating a robots.txt file for your site, which is essentially an instruction manual that tells Google’s web crawlers what to look at on your site. You can create this file using Notepad, or any program on your computer that allows you to create txt files—even if you have no coding experience.
On the first line, you’ll specify an agent by typing: “User-Agent: ____”, filling in the blank with a bot name (like “Googlebot”) or using an * symbol to specify all bots. Then, on each successive line, you can type “Allow:” or “Disallow:” followed by specific URLs to instruct bots which pages should or should not be indexed. There are various reasons why you wouldn’t want a bot to index a page on your site, which I’ll get into later. However, you may want bots to index all pages of your site by default. If this is the case, you do not need a robots.txt file.
Speed has been a somewhat controversial topic in SEO, as its importance has been somewhat overblown. The loading time of your web pages won’t make or break your rankings; reducing your load time by a second won’t magically boost a low-authority site to the top rank.
However, site speed is still an important consideration—both for your domain authority and for the user experience of your site. Google rewards sites that provide content faster, as it is conducive to a better overall user experience, but it only penalizes about one percent of sites for having insufficient speed. When it comes to user experience, every one second in improved site speed is shown to be correlated with a two percent increase in conversions.
In short, whether you’re after higher rankings or more conversions, it’s a good idea to improve your site speed.
Use a good caching plugin. Your first job is to make sure there’s a good caching plugin on your site. You only need one, and unless you have technical experience and unique needs, it’s best to leave your plugin unaltered (i.e., leave the default settings as they are). The caching plugin allows users to store certain pieces of information about your site on their respective browsers. This won’t do much for first-time visitors, but repeat visitors will be able to load your site much more quickly.
Limit the number of plugins you use. Your caching plugin is a must, and you’ll need a handful of other plugins (including an SEO plugin), but try to limit the number of plugins you have on your site. Every additional plugin will represent an increase in the amount of time it takes users to load your site.
Compress what you can. You can use an automated compression program like GZip to reduce the size of the files on your site, so they load faster. It’s not an intensive process, but can shave a few milliseconds off your page loading times.
Limit your redirects. Redirects are sometimes essential for correcting site indexing errors and other issues—and I’ll talk about redirects in more detail later on—but only use them if you know what you’re doing. Every new redirect you create is another piece of information that can bog down the speed of your site.
Consider your server choice. Your choice in server can also have a bearing on your loading speed. Most modern servers are adequate—especially big-name servers, like those provided by WordPress or GoDaddy. However, choosing an inferior, low-cost server could have a negative impact on your average loading speed. A dedicated server may be worth the investment if site speed is a big priority for you. In any case, once you’ve made a decision, your server won’t need much ongoing technical maintenance (unless you’re using one in-house). At AudienceBloom, we use and recommend WPEngine.
Optimize your images. Images are some of the biggest content files you’ll have on your site, so you’ll need to make sure they’re optimized to provide the fastest possible site speed. You can optimize images by making sure they’re the proper format (JPG, GIF, PNG, etc.), and by reducing their size as much as possible before uploading them. This isn’t a technically demanding process; in fact, there are many free image resizing tools available online, including Pic Resize.
Clear unnecessary site data. Do you have a bunch of old content drafts for your blog that haven’t been published? Get rid of them. Every piece of information on your site that doesn’t have a relevant purpose should be cleared.
Consider a content delivery network (CDN). A content delivery network is an automatic service you can sign up for that allows you to serve, or distribute, your site content from multiple different locations simultaneously, rather than from one central server. It’s an additional investment, but doesn’t require any technical knowledge, and could help you achieve a faster loading time if you’re struggling to hit your goals with other tactics.
Mobile optimization is a broad category that includes both technical and non-technical elements. Mobile searches now outnumber desktop searches, so Google has taken extensive efforts in recent years to reward sites that optimize for mobile devices and penalize sites that don’t.
Put simply, if your site is “friendly” to mobile devices, capable of loading and presenting content in a way that works well for mobile users, you’re going to see an increase in authority and rankings. Incidentally, you’ll also become more appealing to your target demographics, possibly increasing customer loyalty and/or conversions.
So what is it that makes sites “optimized” for mobile devices? There are a few main criteria:
Content visibility. First, you’ll need to make sure that all your site’s content is visible to a user—without the need to scroll or zoom. On a non-optimized website, written text will often bleed to the right, forcing users to scroll to read the rest of it. On a mobile optimized site, that text would be constrained by the edges of the screen.
Content readability. Your content should also be readable. Oftentimes, that means choosing a bigger, cleaner font. Mobile devices have smaller screens, so you don’t want your visitors to squint or zoom to have to read it.
Finger-friendly interactions. Instead of using a mouse with a fairly precise pointer to engage with your site, users are going to be using their fingers to tap buttons and fill out forms. Accordingly, your buttons, tabs, and menus should grow to be more prominent and “tappable.”
Image and video visibility. There are some types of content that simply don’t load on mobile devices (such as Flash). Obviously, you’ll want your visitors to see all your cool images and videos, so mobile optimization demands that those features are visible on mobile devices.
Loading speed. Remember what I talked about in the site speed section? It matters even more for mobile devices. Generally, mobile devices load sites much slower than desktop devices, so a fraction of a second delay on a desktop device could cost you multiple seconds on a mobile device. Fortunately, mobile speed improvements are mostly the same as desktop speed improvements.
If all this sounds complex to you, don’t worry. There are some simple ways to test your site to see if it’s counted as “mobile friendly,” and simple fixes you can make if it’s not. The easiest way to make your site mobile friendly is to make your site responsive; this means that your site will detect what device is attempting to view it, and automatically adjust based on those parameters.
This way, you can keep managing only one site, and have it work for both mobile and desktop devices simultaneously. You can also create a separate mobile version of your site, but this isn’t recommended; especially now that Google is beginning to switch to mobile-first indexing.
How can you make your site responsive? The easiest way is to use a website builder and choose a responsive template. Most mainstream website builders these days have responsive templates by default, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t offer what you need.
If you’re building a site from scratch, you’ll need to work with your designers and developers to ensure they’re using responsive criteria.
As long as your site is responsive, you should be in good shape. If you’re in doubt, you can use Google’s mobile-friendly tool to evaluate your domain and see if there are any mistakes interfering with your mobile optimization. All you have to do is enter your domain, and Google will tell you if any of your pages are not up to snuff, pinpointing problem areas so you can correct them if necessary.
I’ve mentioned the importance of sitemaps in multiple areas of this guide so far. Now I’m going to get into the technical details of what sitemaps are, why they’re important for your site, and how to create them.
There are actually two different types of sitemaps you can build and use for your site: HTML and XML. I’ll start with HTML sitemaps, since they’re a little easier to create and understand. As I mentioned before, HTML sitemaps exist as a page on your site, visible to both human visitors and search engine crawlers.
Here, you’ll list a hierarchy of all the pages on your site, starting with the “main” pages, and splitting down into categories and subcategories. Ideally, you’ll include the name of the page along with the accurate link to it, and every page on your site will link to your HTML sitemap in the footer.
Google won’t be using an HTML sitemap to index your pages, so it’s not explicitly necessary to have one. However, it does give Google search crawlers a readily available guidebook of how your pages relate to one another. It can also be useful for your visitors, giving them an overall vision of your site.
XML sitemaps are far more important. Rather than existing as a page on your site, XML sitemaps are code-based files that you can “feed” to Google directly in Google Search Console. They look a little like this:
As you can imagine, they’re a nightmare to produce manually, but there are lots of free and paid tools you can use to generate one.
Before I explain XML sitemap generation, you need to know what they’re used for. Again, these aren’t going to determine whether or not Google indexes your site; Google is going to crawl your site anyway. Instead, Uploading your XML sitemap to Google will instruct Google which pages you find most valuable on your site, and how those pages relate to one another.
For example, you could exclude technical pages of your site that contain fewer than 200 words, so the overall perceived quality of your site isn’t dragged down by your worst content.
Sites with archived, poorly linked content, which makes it difficult for Google to understand how all your pages link to one another.
New sites, which have few external links pointing to them.
Sites using specific types of rich media, such as special annotations or visual media.
Note that excluding a page from your XML sitemap doesn’t mean that page won’t be indexed; the only way to fully block indexation altogether is to use your robots.txt file (as I described earlier).
Does this all sound too complex? Don’t worry; the actual process you use to create a sitemap is fairly simple. Most CMSs have built-in features that allow you to automatically generate both HTML and XML sitemaps; for example, Yoast’s SEO plugin gives you the ability to create dynamic sitemaps, which automatically update as you make changes to your site.
For example, you could exclude pages of your site that fall short of a given word-count threshold, and if you add content, they’ll automatically begin to reappear.
It’s helpful to know how sitemaps work and why they’re important, but for your own sanity, it’s best to leave their generation in the hands of automated apps.
Meta Data and Alt Text
What I’m going to refer to as “meta data” is a blanket category that includes page titles, meta descriptions, and alt text. These are sections of text that describe your pages (or specific pieces of content within those pages). They exist in the code of your site, and are visible to Google search crawlers, but aren’t always visible to visitors (at least not in a straightforward way).
Google’s crawlers review this information and use it to categorize certain features of your site, including pages (as a whole) and piece of content within that page). This makes it helpful for optimizing your site for specific keywords and phrases.
It’s also used to produce the entries in search engine results pages (SERPs) that users will come across. Accordingly, it’s important to optimize your meta data to ensure that prospective visitors are encouraged to click through to your site. The title of your page will appear first, followed by your page URL in green, followed by your meta description, as shown in the example below:
Your goals in optimizing the meta information of your site then, is to first ensure that Google is getting an accurate description of your content, and second to entice users to click through to your site.
Titles. Titles are the first and most important description of your site’s individual pages. They should include at least one keyword relevant to that page (and your site), your brand name at the end, and should make some logical sense to your visitors. They should also contain less than 60 characters, as this is the maximum displayed by SERPs. For blog articles, titles usually correspond with the title of that blog post.
Descriptions. Descriptions are secondary ways of describing your pages, and generally have more wiggle room to include secondary keywords, long-tail phrases, and more conversational phrasing. The limit here is 160 characters.
Alt text. Alt text is specific to images, and is important for both search engines and visitors. When uploading an image, you’ll need to make sure your image file name reflects what the image actually contains—this will function as the image’s title in search engines. You may also include a caption to correspond with that image. Beyond that, you’ll need some descriptive text, which helps Google “understand” what’s happening in your image; this is the alt text, and it’s usually editable directly within your CMS. The alt text will also appear, instead of the image, in any case where a user attempts to load the image but is unable.
Thankfully, optimizing your meta data is fairly simple. Most CMS platforms will, for each page of your site, offer blank, clearly labeled boxes that let you edit the corresponding meta data for that page. Remember, it’s a good idea to include at least one keyword in each of your titles and descriptions, but you’ll want to avoid keyword stuffing, and focus on writing meta data that makes sense to your users.
The last component of technical SEO I want to cover is the possibility for technical errors; these are common things that can (and probably will) go wrong with your site, causing a hiccup in your rankings and interfering with your plans.
If you notice your site isn’t ranking the way it should, or if something has dramatically changed without your notice (and no immediately clear underlying cause), your first troubleshooting step should be checking for the following technical errors:
Crawl errors. Crawl errors happen when Google attempts to crawl your site but is somehow unsuccessful. There are a variety of potential culprits here, but thankfully, Google makes it easy to figure out what’s happening. Within Google Search Console, you can run a “crawl error” report that plainly states what’s going on with your site and why. There are a handful of potential crawl errors that could happen here; for example, there could be a DNS error that doesn’t prevent bots from accessing your site, but could cause latency problems. In this case, you’ll need to repair any problems with your DNS server and make sure Google can access your site as intended. You may also have a server problem, which is probably the most complex problem you’ll face in technical SEO, since there could be so many root causes (and so many potential fixes). The potential solutions here extend beyond the scope of this guide, but usually involve diagnosing issues with your hosting provider. Fortunately, they should be few and far between. Robots.txt errors will also appear in this report.
404 errors. In Google Search Console, you’ll also be able to scan for 404 errors. 404 errors won’t seriously negatively affect your search rankings, but may be an indication of a bigger problem, and could irritate your visitors. The biggest root cause of 404 errors is page deletion, but may also be a symptom of a hosting problem. You can correct 404 errors easily by restoring a page that was deleted, diagnosing any problems with your hosting provider, or creating a 301 redirect. 301 redirects take incoming traffic to a page and forward it to a different, more relevant page. Even if you aren’t an experienced programmer, you should be able to follow the basic step-by-step instructions necessary to set a redirect up.
Broken links. Broken or “dead” links come in several varieties. They might be internal or external, and they might be due to a typographical error in the site link, or due to a 404 error for the intended page. In any case, they no longer take users to a functional page. If these links exist on your own site, you can remove them or fix them by replacing them with a new destination URL. If they exist on an external site (ie, an external site links to a page on your site which returns a 404 error), you can set up a 301 redirect to a better, functional page, or reach out to the webmaster to ask that the link be updated. You can use Google’s internal links report to check for broken links on your own site, or a backlink search engine like Open Site Explorer to check for broken links on external sites.
Duplicate content. Duplicate content is an often misunderstood technical error. This isn’t necessarily an instance of intentionally duplicated or plagiarized content; instead, it’s usually due to a single page of content being indexed with multiple URLs, such as being indexed as both a https:// and https://www Google Search Console has a duplicate content report that can help you track down these instances. They won’t necessarily hurt your search rankings, but it’s better to clean these up to avoid misunderstandings by users or search bots. The way to do this is with a canonical tag, which is simple to implement. All you have to do is choose a primary or “canonical” page (flip a coin if you can’t decide), and add a canonical link from the non-canonical version to the canonical one. A canonical tag looks like this:
If you have an SEO plugin, you may be able to enter the canonical link manually, like you did with titles and meta descriptions. Alternatively, you could use 301 redirects to clarify duplicate content discrepancies, but it’s arguably easier to set up canonical tags.
There are some other technical issues you may encounter, such as images not loading properly, but many of them are preventable if you follow best practices, and are easily resolvable with a quick Google search. Even if you don’t understand exactly what’s happening or why, following step-by-step instructions written by experts is a fast way for even amateurs to solve complex SEO problems.
The Non-Technical Stuff
In this section, I want to cover some of the “non-technical” tactics you’ll need to have a successful SEO campaign. None of these strategies requires much technical expertise, but it’s important to understand that the technical factors I listed above aren’t the only thing you’ll need to grow your rankings over time.
Keep in mind that each of these categories is rich in depth, and requires months to years to fully master, and these entries are mere introductions to their respective topics.
Without high-quality content, your SEO campaign will fail. You need at least 300 words of highly descriptive, concisely written content on every page of your site, and you’ll want to update your on-site blog at least two or three times a week with dense, informative, practical content—preferably of 700 words or more. This content will give search engines more pages and more content to crawl and index.
Collectively, they’ll add to the domain authority and individual page authorities of your site pages, and they’ll provide more opportunities for your site visitors to interact with your brand and your site. Here are some resources to help you create and publish high-quality content:
All that on-site content also gives you the opportunity to optimize for specific target keywords. Initially, you’ll select a number of “head” keywords (usually limited in length, and highly competitive) and “long-tail” keywords (longer in length, usually representing a conversational phrase, and less competitive) to optimize for.
When performing your keyword research, you’ll choose terms with high potential traffic and low competition, then you’ll include those terms throughout your site, especially favoring your page titles and descriptions. You’ll want to be careful not to over-optimize here, as including too many keywords on a given page (or your site in general) could trigger a content quality-related penalty from Google.
Authority is partially calculated based on the quality and appearance of your site, but the bigger factor is the quantity and quality of links you have pointing to your site. Link building is a strategy that enables you to create more of these links, and therefore generate more authority for your brand.
Old-school link building tactics are now considered spammy, so modern link builders use a combination of guest posting on external authority publishers and naturally attracting links by writing high-quality content and distributing it to attract shares and inbound links. In any case, you’ll need to invest in your link building tactics if you want your campaign to grow. For help, see SEO Link Building: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide.
Analysis and Reporting
Finally, none of your tactics are going to be worthwhile unless you can measure and interpret the results they’re generating. At least monthly, you’ll want to run an analysis of your work, measuring things like inbound traffic, ranking for your target keywords, and of course, checking for any technical errors that have arisen.
Hopefully, after reading this guide, all those technical SEO details should seem a lot less technical. If you’ve followed the guide step-by-step, you should have been able to tackle tasks like building robots.txt files and improving your site’s speed even if you don’t have experience in creating or managing websites.
Even though this guide covers some of the most important fundamentals of SEO, and can help you through the basics of technical SEO, it’s important to realize that SEO is a deep and complex strategy with far more considerations than a guide like this can comprehensively cover. A good next step would be to check out 101 Ways to Improve Your Website’s SEO.
If you’re interested in further help in your SEO campaign, be sure to contact us for more guidance and expertise!
Update 1: This post is now available as a PDF eBook! You can grab it here.
Update 2: I conducted a webinar on August 4th, 2016, on content marketing! You can see the replay here.
Update 3: This is Part 1 of our content marketing series. See Part 2, which is all about promoting your published content, here.
There are 2 types of people in the world:
those who have launched a content marketing campaign, and;
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Content marketing helps you achieve this progression with wider and wider audiences.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.If 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
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.
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:
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Sometimes a simple post is enough to generate an influx of traffic. Don’t neglect this step.
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
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:
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
If you want more in-depth resources on content marketing, be sure to check out these guides from Jayson DeMers:
Few SEO strategies are as discussed or debated as much as link building, and for a few good reasons. Despite some claims to the contrary, link building remains an integral part of SEO—so it’s always relevant in discussion. Thanks to Google’s Penguin update (and subsequent updates), the process of link building has changed dramatically over the past decade—so it’s in a state of evolution. And it’s less precise and calculable than certain “gimme” SEO strategies like ensuring your onsite SEO is in order—making it more uncertain to many practitioners.
On the surface, link building seems so simple, so how can it be so complicated?
The apathetic marketer will denounce link building as being too complex to approach, and the frugal marketer will see the costs of link building—which often run up to thousands of dollars per month—and immediately write it off as too expensive. But the reality is, link building is incredibly valuable, usually worth far more than the money you put into your campaign. Yes, I’m biased, but if you break down the benefits, the actual value of link building is more or less provable.
The Trouble With Pinpointing an Exact Value
I’ll make this statement early, so you aren’t misled. I’m not going to be able to put a firm numerical value on “link building” or the value of a single link, or anything like that. Pinpointing an exact value is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for the following reasons:
Ambiguous authority measures. Domain authority (and subsequent ranking power) is one of the most important benefits of link building—you can measure it easily with any number of online tools, often for free.
With link building, you’ll be able to track gains in your authority, but it’s almost impossible to correlate these to individual links or efforts in your strategy.
Unpredictable variables. Assuming you could calculate the precise value of link building, there’d still be a problem with projecting its overall value—unknown and unpredictable variables. How many people will see your offsite article? Will your publisher replace your link with a nofollow link? How long will it stay up?
Peripheral values. Link building has a number of calculable values, but also some incalculable values, such as visibility and reputation increases. This complicates our ability to measure the value of link building.
Overlapping influencers. Despite being one of the most important SEO strategies, link building is still just one strategy. In conjunction with onsite efforts and ongoing content, it’s hard to isolate which influences came exclusively from link building.
Long-term gains. This is a long-term strategy, so measuring your short-term gains isn’t enough to give you an accurate depiction of your overall earned value. By extension, it’s almost impossible to project your growth over subsequent months and years.
Strategy variation. This should go without saying, but every business is different, and will need a different strategy to be successful. Some of these are more expensive than others, and some yield more value than others.
With those considerations in mind, let’s take a look at exactly how valuable a link building strategy can be (within the limits of our understanding).
Anatomy of a Modern Link
First, it’s important to know exactly what “modern” link building is, as there are still a number of misconceptions and poor descriptions of the strategy floating around. Link building used to be pretty simple—you’d post links pointing back to your domain wherever you could, sit back, and reap the benefits. Today, Google knows the difference between a good link and a bad link, and publishers are ever watchful for links that are only used to manipulate rank or increase traffic.
Modern link building is somewhat straightforward, but it isn’t easy. There are two main approaches. The first is direct and controllable; a domain produces valuable content that an external publisher would like their audience to read. The content contains a number of links, one of which points back to the author’s domain, and when posted, the link goes live. It’s not a form of manipulation or deceit because the primary goal is writing good content for the publisher’s audience.
The second approach is more about attracting links naturally. With this method, you’ll produce an extraordinary piece of content, syndicate it, and hope it goes viral, getting shared by thousands to millions of people. When this happens, you’ll naturally earn dozens of links pointing back to you.
So, with both of these approaches, you have a handful of important goals. These goals are the “value” that link building provides. I’ll introduce these values as general concepts here, then dig into them in dedicated sections.
Authority. Google uses inter-domain links as third-party verifications that a site is authoritative. The understanding is that an authoritative site will only link to a domain if that domain is trustworthy; using advanced algorithms, Google can trace link networks and site relationships to evaluate which domains (and pages) are most trustworthy. The further away you are from a trustworthy site, the less authoritative your site will be.
Authority is important because it determines your ranking potential. Assuming a user query is relevant to your site, your domain authority will determine how you rank compared to other sites. Getting more links from more valuable sources will therefore rank you higher, and earn you lots of additional organic traffic. Every visitor to your site is valuable.
Referral traffic. Search-based organic traffic isn’t the only traffic that link building provides, however. You’ll want to target valuable publishers, as they’ll give you the most authoritative links, so naturally, these valuable publishers will have a dedicated readership. Anyone who reads the content you post and is intrigued to learn more may follow your link directly, getting to your site as “referral” traffic. Think of this as a secondary way for new users to get to your site from link building. Though standard links are more valuable due to the authority they pass, even nofollow links can generate referral traffic. You can measure both Organic and Referral traffic using Google Analytics.
Brand visibility. Brand visibility is a secondary consideration, because it isn’t objectively measurable the way your search ranks and referral traffic are. For the most part, you’ll be publishing content as a personal brand affiliated with your corporate brand, which gives you additional exposure to new markets on each new publisher. Even if you aren’t, you’ll get an opportunity to make your brand visible when you introduce the link. Brand visibility alone won’t bring you much value, but visibility leads to awareness, which leads to consideration, evaluation, and eventually loyalty—it may even help you earn some word-of-mouth referrals!
Tangential benefits. In addition to the benefits above, there are some tangential benefits to link building. These are less reliable and tougher to measure, but they do have a positive impact on your brand and your bottom line. For example, the strength of your content may serve a value to increase your brand reputation, positively associating your brand as a thought leader in the industry. People may socially share or link to your externally published article, sending more secondary link juice your way. And of course, most publishers socially syndicate your article anyway, earning you more total exposure and possibly an increased social media following.
Not all links are created equal
Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that not all links are the same. In fact, a bad link can actually hurt you by earning you a penalty or sinking your domain authority. I’ll get into the costs of negative link building on my section on Authority, but before I go any further, it’s important you understand the variables at play here. A link on a local news site won’t pass nearly as much authority or see nearly as much traffic as a link on a national publisher’s site—but the latter is, of course, far more difficult to earn. It takes much better content, foundational authority, and a solid understanding of the publisher’s target audience to get accepted.
Accordingly, the value of your link building campaign depends greatly on the value of the links that comprise it.
Let’s take a look at the domain- and page-level authority influences that link building has, and how that translates to an actual value.
Link Building as a Necessity for SEO
First, let me explain why link building is important to any SEO campaign. Quite simply, without some link building measure, it’s impossible to gain any significant rank in Google.
Take a look at the relative influence of ranking factors, according to correlational studies by Moz and SearchMetrics:
Take a look at the top two most important influencers. Don’t let the technical descriptions fool you. These two entries refer to links pointing to your domain and links pointing to your individual pages in question. Links are even more important to rank than keyword- and content-based features, and more important than page-level keyword-agnostic features. Some of the most important factors of SEO still pale in comparison to the influence that link building has on your overall ranking potential.
This has been shown in a number of independent studies, and suggests that the quantity and diversity of your inbound links directly predicts how you’ll rank for a relevant query:
Unfortunately, this correlational data can’t tell us the amount of ranking influence a single link has, but the takeaway that link building is a necessity for earning higher ranks is what we’re after in this section. The bottom line: SEO is not possible without link building.
The Value of Higher Ranks
Now that we know SEO depends on link building, let’s take a look at the value of SEO. As an abstract concept, SEO seems valuable—you, like every other modern consumer in the United States, often consult search engines when you’re making a buying decision. That means any increase in search visibility you have has the potential to be valuable.
There are too many variables to try and isolate any search conditions or direct values—a high rank for a nationally relevant, broad keyword will result in far more traffic than a high rank for a local niche keyword. However, in the case of the latter, it will be far easier to rank. Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s possible to earn 100,000 organic visitors a month or more—but what can you reasonably expect?
First, recognize that there’s are some steep cutoffs when it comes to the payoff of search rank:
The vast majority of searchers click on the first site that comes up for their query. This means that, all other things being equal, it’s better to have one or two positions as number one than it is to have dozens of positions on the second page or lower. With the right keyword strategy, your link building campaign can support this upward momentum, helping you to cross the tough thresholds from page two to page one, and up each additional rank.
Value of a Single Link From a New Domain
It’s hard to say exactly how much value a new link can generate for your brand in terms of authority and rank. If you somehow earn a link from a high-authority national site like Huffington Post while you’re still in your infancy as a brand, you could easily move up several points in terms of domain authority, resulting in a kind of “rising tide” that increases all your ranks significantly.
On an iterative scale, any link from a new domain could be the one to bump your keyword ranks to the next level.
So let’s run a quick thought experiment as an example. Let’s say you have a modest range of targets—three keywords that each receive about 30,000 searches per month. You currently rank on the second page for all of them, getting almost no traffic whatsoever. In month one, you earn links from three new domains and you move up to position 5, which gets about 5% of all traffic (according to the graph in the previous section). That earns you a total of 4,500 monthly visitors for as long as you maintain this rank (we’ll project this indefinitely). If your conversion rate is even 2%, that’s 90 new conversions from the authority boost of your links alone.
Now, this model doesn’t account for the time it took to get to page two, nor does it account for the even more massive link to the top spot—which multiplies your traffic sevenfold. It would also take some pretty strong domain links to jump five positions in one fell swoop for what are probably highly competitive keywords. Take this illustration for what it is—an indication of potential. Without any link building, you forfeit that potential.
The Cost of Negative Link Building
This doesn’t mean that you need to build as many links as possible, however. Be aware that there is a sliding scale for link quality, and that scale runs into the negative; building a bad link won’t just stop you from making progress, it could easily reverse some of the progress you’ve already made. Your domain authority will suffer, and you may even incur a manual Google penalty.
There are many link building companies out there who try to make a quick buck by building “bad” links. Not all of these are malicious, per say, just misinformed or misguided. If a link building service is suspiciously cheap, there’s probably a reason for it. Good link building—the kind that actually can earn you sweeping changes in rank—demands experience, investment, and effort, and that costs more money. Though some agencies have higher profit margins than others, as a general rule, you get what you pay for.
Finally, a quick note about the recurring value of authority and organic traffic. When you earn authority, as long as you don’t commit any egregious offenses, it’s hard to lose that authority. Other competitors may wrestle with you over individual positions, but for the most part, your ranks are earned. You don’t just earn organic traffic for a few days or a few weeks—as long as you maintain your link building strategy, you’ll reap organic traffic month over month, indefinitely, adding to the value of your efforts.
All the benefits and value I described in the preceding section is just one of the two concrete ways your link building strategy will earn value in the long term. The other is through referral traffic. Though the concept of referral traffic is simple (the number of people who click through your established link to your domain), the execution and variables surrounding it makes it hard to estimate a concrete value. We’ll strive for a reasonable estimate.
The first and most important determining factor in how much referral traffic your inbound links can generate is the amount of traffic the publisher receives. Assuming you’re getting a spot on the front page or in your industry section of choice, you’ll earn a fraction of the monthly visitors to that section. It’s hard to say definitively, but once you’ve published 4-5 articles on a given source, you’ll have a reasonable estimate for how many visits an article on that source can generate.
Publisher traffic varies wildly, and may change without warning. For example, Huffington Post’s estimated monthly unique visitors is on the order of 200 million, but that number tapered off dramatically when BuzzFeed emerged as a serious competitor. There’s no way to speak generally and accurately about this, but your first circle of external publications will likely generate very little in terms of referral traffic. Once you earn enough authority to post on national-level publishers, you can count on hundreds to thousands of unique referral visitors to your site every month.
The type of link you offer has a significant bearing on how much referral traffic you earn as well. For example, if you simply have your link as one of several examples, buried deep in your content, few people will venture to follow it. On the other hand, if you make reference to a much larger issue, or a separate study, that your link provides access to, it’s likely you’ll pique your readers’ curiosities enough for them to follow it. Your wording and persuasiveness also come into play here, just as they would with a traditional call-to-action. This could mean the difference between earning 100 referral visitors out of 1,000 readers and earning 500.
You’ll need to keep a careful balance here. If you make your links too persuasive, too obvious, or too geared toward attracting new traffic, they’re liable to be rejected by the publisher—especially at the higher levels. If you make them too “hidden” or innocuous, you’ll miss out on tons of traffic.
It’s also worth noting that not all traffic will yield the same value for your brand. You may get 500 visits from a high-level publisher, but if you write for a general audience, you’ll get people who are only fleetingly interested in your business. On the other hand, if you earn 100 visits from a niche industry publisher, you may end up with 100 potentially interested customers.
Again, you’ll need to strike a balance here. If even 25 percent of those 500 national visitors are interested in your products, you’ll earn more total value than with your niche publisher. Maintain a blend of link relationships with different publications to maximize your value, and understand that not every “visit” can be calculated to have the same potential value.
The timing aspect of link building is also important to consider. Most “new” posts get an immediate surge in popularity, earning the majority of their lifetime value of traffic within the first week of publication. However, don’t forget that online articles usually remain up forever, along with whatever links you’ve built to go along with them. If your content is evergreen, you can feasibly syndicate it on an ongoing basis for the foreseeable future, reaping more and more social and referral traffic as new people discover your content. If you land a breakout piece, this effect is multiplied, as your offsite article will start ranking high for related searches and earning regular organic traffic that could filter into referral traffic.
Total Referral Value of a Link
Much of the “total referral value” of a link depends on the value of an average visitor to your site (just like organic traffic). If you have a 1 percent conversion rate and a $100 value of conversion, then each visitor is worth an average of $1 to you, excluding some of the variables listed above.
I’m working under the assumption that your traffic has some value, let’s say $1 per visitor, and that you’re link building on a national level, where it’s possible to earn hundreds of visits in referral traffic for every new post you create. With strong content, strong link placement, and strong publishers, every link you build could yield hundreds to thousands of dollars’ worth of referral traffic. The only caveat to this is the understanding that it usually takes time to work up to this level, meaning the value of your link building strategy increases based on your commitment to it.
Brand Visibility and Tangential Benefits
Though the tangential benefits of link building are difficult to measure, they’re worth acknowledging, since they can affect you in real ways.
Any mention of your brand on an external site is going to increase your brand visibility in some small way. A flippant user may not register your brand name or follow your link, but the next time they see you, they’ll remember seeing you in the past. They may even mention your name to a friend or family member thinking of making a purchase in your niche. Brand awareness isn’t as concretely measurable as referral traffic or organic traffic—in fact, it’s usually invisible—but it can push unfamiliar consumers closer to becoming actual customers.
Personal Brand Reputation
When your personal (or corporate) brand posts on an external publisher, particularly a reputable one, you’ll immediately get a boost to your reputation by sheer affiliation. Take a look at just some of the places where AudienceBloom team members have been published:
Being featured on any one of these publications makes your brand seem more authoritative, and listing all of them out like this makes a powerful first impression. Inbound users will instantly grow more familiar and trusting of your brand.
Social Traffic and Engagements
For the most part, publishers will work to syndicate your article on their own social accounts. Take Entrepreneur as an example:
In many cases, they’ll call out your own brand’s social media information, and might even link to your site depending on the circumstances. This could lend you social traffic to your site, more social followers for your brand, or just more opportunities to engage socially with your readers. You can even jump into the comments section on your post and engage with your users to build stronger community relationships. Again, the value here isn’t precisely calculable.
Growth Factors and Relationship Value
When it comes to starting, growing, and maintaining your strategy, you’ll find a handful of variables that influence how much value your link building campaign actually returns.
When posting new links on the same domain, there’s a law of diminishing return when it comes to domain authority. It’s far more valuable to earn links on new domains than it is to earn successive links on the same domain. However, the referral traffic value remains constant—and may even increase as you earn more loyal readers. It balances out so that there’s only a slight decrease in value with successive link building opportunities.
Getting yourself published on one high authority gives you more credentials to post on similarly high authorities—or even higher ones. This makes even small-level link building opportunities valuable just for the fact that they can lead to high-level link building opportunities. You’ll need to bear this in mind, especially in the beginning of your campaign.
Ease of Entry
To build links effectively, you need stellar content, great relationships with high-level publishers, and an intimate understanding of what makes a “good” link. It often takes years to build up these credentials on your own, meaning you’ll probably be operating with negative value until you cross a certain threshold of experience. Fortunately, there’s a shortcut to this—partnering with an experienced firm who already has the relationships, knowledge, and capacity to execute this work on your behalf.
Putting It All Together
There’s a lot of information in this guide, but I’ve intentionally stayed away from pinpointing a solid number value, for reasons that should be apparent to you by now. Still, I’d like to conclude this resource by attempting to definitively estimate—or at least describe—the real value of a link.
The Real Value of a Link?
In the later stages of a link building campaign, when you know what you’re doing, have existing relationships with publishers, and have the potential to work with high-authority sources, the value of link building is enormous. Assuming you remain consistent, with a targeted strategy, it’s possible for link building to directly influence thousands of organic visitors and thousands of referral visitors per month—even in exchange for moderate effort—and that’s not even counting the indirect benefits. At this level, a single link, accompanied by good content, can yield up to thousands of dollars in value.
The only real problem is getting to that level. Unless you want to spend years and thousands of man-hours inching your way up, there’s only one ideal solution to see this return.
The Value of Outsourcing
You know that low-quality link building, or cheap link building will only hurt you in the long run, but the hundreds to thousands of dollars a month it costs for an experienced link builder seems excessive on the surface. But remember, you’re paying for your partner’s experience. You’re paying for their relationships. You’re paying for their quality. It’s a big investment that yields a big return, as you’ve seen in my illustrations and examples. If you don’t engage in link building, you’re leaving those thousands of recurring visitors on the table.
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.
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):
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
The above example is highly debatable, yet doesn’t have high stakes or consequences. As you can see, it earned 12,372 shares.
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.”
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:
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.
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:
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 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:
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.
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.