Ian Lurie // Jul 28 2011
This blog post is based on yesterday’s content strategies session at MozCon. If you missed it, or wanted a refresher, give this a read:
This post is huge. So, here’s a quick preview:
The problem. In content creation, you can’t do the minimum required work any more. There is no ‘minimum’. Changes in Google’s algorithm and in competitor behavior mean you gotta write and produce great content.
The other problem. At your company, you have no budget and no status whatsoever.
The process. Start with opportunity gap analysis. Then mine content for subject matter. Plan out your headline list, source your writers. Score those writers. Measure, and repeat. I’ll go over steps and tools for each of these parts of the process.
The outcome. You connect the stuff the boss/client cares about—sales and site performance—with your content. Do it with a methodical approach to content research, sourcing and promotion.
Also, you can download the slides from my presentation from SEOMOZ, here.
Interested? OK, read on. On to the post.
Why is it that, in internet marketing, content is treated like a dried turd? People in the room don’t notice it—they don’t even smell it—until they step on it. Then they brush it away, dealing with it as quickly and quietly as possible.
How many times have you been in a conversation like this?
Note, I’m not afraid to make fun of myself in this. In case you think I’m being nasty to other CEOs, etc., I’ve been each of these jackasses far too many times.
Why are content budgets so small they collapse in on themselves, becoming super-dense bodies from which even common sense cannot escape?
Why? Because the boss/client is so far away from content creation that they see no connection between that content and the stuff they care about: Sales, conversions. All they see is cost. So it becomes a sunk cost.
So everyone just ignored content for years. Once every 2-3 years, someone would rewrite some of the marketing copy.
Then along came search. Suddenly, writing content could get you rankings. The focus became content juuust good enough to pass search engine inspection. Write, publish, grab your traffic and hope for the best. The potential traffic volume blew away concerns about writing quality.
Scale was more important: Just keep churning out crap, throw it at the search engines and wait for something to stick.
And there was very little downside, at least as far as rankings. The real harm done was subtle: A sale lost here, an extra customer service call there. It didn’t matter. The upside was far larger. Write content that’s just good enough and you could get huge wins.
But the wet-noodle approach has worked less and less over the last couple of years. Now it’s a total failure. Content that’s “Good enough” isn’t actually good enough, for 2 big reasons.
So no, good enough isn’t any more. You have to produce super stuff. But everyone at work still thinks you’re a chimpanzee that can type. What to do?
If learn nothing else reading this post, remember this: If you want to grow content, establish your value and get more wins for the SEO team, connect the stuff the boss/client cares about with your content. Do it with a methodical approach to content research, sourcing and promotion. You’ll get better content, you’ll get better results, and your value will increase.
If you’re going to connect the dots, you’ll need a process that:
For the rest of this post I’m going to describe the process we use – well, the process I wish we used (reality sometimes intrudes) – at Portent to target, brainstorm and produce content.
The process ties together four basic steps:
I’ve done a lot of writing about this, but here’s the quick version: You want to find the easy wins. Don’t beat yourself bloody ramming your head against a brick wall, chasing after phrases and concepts where you’ve got no ranking and no chance if you’ve got some easy opportunities for improvement.
Instead, find the stuff that’s an easy win: Phrases where you rank but could rank better. Content that drives a lot of traffic, but you know you could drive more.
I’m going to use my blog as an example here, but this works even better on lead-driven, B2B sites and e-commerce, where you’ve got a clear conversion goal.
Get a feel for what content is really working.”Working” doesn’t just mean “Getting pageviews”. You want to look at any engagement data you can: Time on page, bounce rate, exit rate, and sales/conversions for visitors who viewed the page, too, if you have that data. I usually use Google Analytics to do this:
But I’ll also look at tools like PostRank. These tools are a little iffy, in my opinion—it’s hard for a computer to measure audience response. But Google just bought ‘em, so they’re on to something.
And, of course, take a look at your top traffic-driving terms:
Then check the ranking of your top traffic-driving pages. Are they #1? No? Time to work on moving them up by turning them into hubs and writing more stuff.
My smart-assed piece about social media experts is #4 for ‘social media expert’. It drives decent traffic. It shows better-than-average engagement. If I can move up, I can get a bit more.
So we have the gap part of ‘opportunity gap’. But is there an opportunity?
Do I stand a chance of moving up? To check, take a quick look at on- and offsite metrics:
I use my trusty allintitle: search to see how many pages have this exact phrase in their title tags. This isn’t the only way to judge phrase competition – I’m going to look at the average bid, total competing pages, and if this is really a hot phrase, on-page SEO for each of the top 20 sites. But allintitle is a good, fast indicator of how many sites are intentionally optimizing for a given phrase. Only 35,700 competitors that have that phrase in their title. I’ll take those odds.
Then, I’ll hop on OpenSiteExplorer and look at my site’s authority versus the site just above mine. Whoa:
I flex my online muscles!
I’ll expand on that phrase, researching related searches for ‘social media expert’. I’m not going to bother with any details here. You know how to do it. WordTracker, Adwords Keywords Tool, etc.
Regardless, you’ve established an opportunity gap for this phrase.
The last step: Document. Record opportunity gap phrases, the ranking pages, competition, and whether you’re going to create new pages or not. That creates your keyword map:
Now you’ve drawn a line from the big glob of data and content you’ve already got to the steps you need to take. If your boss asks, you can show her why one particular phrase and page offered a fantastic opportunity.
More important, you now know the subject matter area you need to research. On to the next step.
Now, it’s all about subject matter. What do your readers/customers want to read? What are other people writing about? Are there any general trends, themes, conversations going on to which you can contribute?
In other words: What are people saying related to your opportunity gap phrases and topics?
You could take the old route, do 5 minutes of research and then start writing.
Instead, you’re going to record conversations over time (not in a bad way), analyze the content of those conversations, and then brainstorm headlines and strategy.
First, create and access your collection:
You’ll start collecting all of the articles and posts into that folder. When you’re ready to harvest
The stuff I always include in a collection:
Quick tip: Twitter no longer shows a nice RSS link on their search results page. But you can still set up a feed of a Twitter search result by using the URL search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=KW – replace ‘KW’ with your phrase.
With this process, you just took a bunch of feeds from alerts, web sites, etc. and assembled it into a single, unified feed of content. You can now mine that content for data.
Now, analyze the collection. I like to grab a count of top words, plus the top bigrams and trigrams—two- and three-word phrases—from the collected content. I built a tool (in proto-new-not-finished-alpha phase) you can use to do it:
Looking at this, I can tell fairly quickly who’s important in this debate, the fact that folks were focused on the stock market (24 hours ago – this is an old screen capture), and that we’re facing an August 2nd deadline. May seem obvious if you live in the US, but if it’s a topic with which you’re unfamiliar, this is gold.
If you don’t get a good result, you may need to deliver more items. By default, Google Reader only supplies 20 items in the atom feed. You can increase that by adding ‘?n=75’ to the end of the feed URL. Please don’t go higher than 75. This app is on a very basic Google App Engine setup, and it’s just a baby.
Now, take all that data and draw conclusions. I don’t have any great tool for that. Use your brain. It’s still the most powerful computer you’ve got.
Finally, brainstorm headlines. Again, document everything. In another tab of the opportunity gap spreadsheet, list headlines. Include space to record the writers who take on each one, the date, and whether the content is complete.
Now you’ve drawn a nice, clean line from opportunity gap to headlines. Time to get that stuff written.
Sourcing isn’t so much a process as a set of rules:
You will need freelancers, no matter what. We have a full-time, in-house copywriting team at Portent. But we write about everything from colon-cleansing regimens to cloud-based business integration apps. Sometimes, we need a specialist, or someone with a particular touch for infographics, etc.
Pay well. If you pay like crap, you’ll get crap. Great content requires great skill. Pay for it. Expect to pay at least $.50/word for a 300-word article, and a lot more for longer, specialized pieces or infographics. I bet it’s still a fraction of what you spent getting your site built. Just pay it.
Always be recruiting. We have a form up on the Portent site and frequently invite writers to send us samples. We’re constantly recruiting, hiring, tracking and grading results for each writer, too. We always have a decent idea of a writer’s strengths and weaknesses, so we can match them to the right gig.
Keep score. We keep a basic history for each writer, as well as a simple score for their writing ability, professionalism and audience response to their content. That way, we can steer work to the writers best suited for it.
That’s it. Follow those rules, pay attention to who you’re hiring, and yes, document it all.
Sourcing lets you connect the work you’ve done on opportunity gap and subject matter directly to the right writers. You’ve connected the dots. On to the last step: Stacking the deck.
This is more a list of tricks than anything else, but it’s part of our process. It’s a lot easier to get attention if you already have an audience. We build audience through niche curation on social media. If a client’s audience is mostly on Twitter, we’ll make sure we’re providing a steady stream of super-useful links to other peoples’ content, day in, day out. That will build listeners.
This isn’t about spamming! The stream should be so good that no one cares about your motive. Again: Quality. You have to blow your audience away with the stuff you provide. They have to think “Wow, Ian just made his entire existence worthwhile by Tweeting that link.”
The heart of this lives in scheduling. You need to be able to schedule Tweets, Facebook posts and posts to other networks throughout the day, without sending your audience a huge blob of information all at once.
I use Timely.is to do this. It only works on Twitter, but it makes life very easy. Here’s what I do, every morning. It takes about 10-15 minutes:
So, 10 times/day, I’m tweeting out great, third-party content. I post other stuff, of course. But every day, my readers get something interesting.
There are fancier tools, too: You can use Hootsuite’s built-in scheduling feature to ‘pre-post’ to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, all at once. If you want to really get ridiculous, you can set up a Google spreadsheet that grabs feed items you tag and automatically creates a bulk scheduler file. Then you can upload that file to HootSuite, and it does the scheduling for you:
I’ve found this to be more work than it’s worth, but it’s up to you. I can even share the Google doc with you, if you like.
This is audience building, plain and simple. Then, when you publish something new on your own site, you can shout it out to all the folks who already know you’re a great source of information. They’re predisposed to click, and to spread the word.
And surprise! Document everything! Pay for Bit.ly pro so you get the full analytics, custom URLs, etc. Watch which times of day, tweet styles, etc. work the best. Check out some of the research done by Dan Zarella. He’s done a lot of stuff on this subject.
So, go back through this entire process:
It all fits together. You’ve now drawn a nice line, traceable by anyone who looks, from all that mushy content creation stuff to publishing and promotion. You can show the decisions that made it all click.
It can also blow up in your face, if you don’t follow a few simple lessons:
Brain required. I can’t say this enough times. You are not automating content production. That’s a terrible idea. People always tell me they want to crank out content ‘like a printing press’. They’ve got it wrong. The printing press doesn’t create—it replicates. Think of what you’re doing in this process as the steps before you go to press.
Marketing = work. A lot of people will tell me they don’t have time for this, don’t have the budget, etc. I know. You’re not entitled to an easy success. Is it fair that you have to labor away at this while companies like Target kick your ass up and down the rankings? Who said this would be fair? You’ve got your own advantages – use ‘em.
Don’t be a jackass. It’s often tempting to try to surf on trending issues. If you do, do it carefully:
I don’t think I have to say anything else about that.
I’m not an analytics fanatic. I don’t think you can measure every facet of marketing. I do, however, know that our bosses and clients disagree. They won’t pay for stuff unless you can establish that it’s working.
Measure a lot. First things clients will ask is “how many people viewed the page?!!!” But be sure to point out social media interaction:
And other forms of citation: Links, etc. And record the results for each article and writer! That’s your reference point for later on, so you can figure out how to keep improving.
Clients may see that a specific article only acquired 10 links, or that a video only got 1,000 views. But that content may still bring huge value, delivering citations of all kinds and boosting rankings and brand.
That’s a lot of stuff. But the most important things to understand are:
Ian Lurie is founder and CEO of Portent Inc., an internet marketing agency that has provided internet marketing, including PPC, SEO, social and analytics services, since 1995. Read More