Content marketing in a nutshell: Good enough isn’t

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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:

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A quick preview

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 content a turd?

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?

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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.

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Why are content budgets so small they collapse in on themselves, becoming super-dense bodies from which even common sense cannot escape?

content budgets

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.

The rise of ‘good enough’

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.

The death of ‘good enough’

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.

  • Site-wide ranking: The Panda update moved Google from assessing pages to assessing sites. If half your site is lousy, and half is good, the lousy half becomes an anchor, dragging you down. You can’t afford to fling good and bad up on your site.
  • Competition is refocusing: Instead of out-doing the other guy by cranking out more, you have to crank out better content. You have to entertain, educate and inform better than anyone else. Everyone’s starting to look at this.

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?

The lesson

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.

Connect the dots

If you’re going to connect the dots, you’ll need a process that:

  • Finds data at each step, and records that data;
  • Creates easy-to-see connections between the current step and the next;
  • Is repeatable;
  • Helps you figure out what to write (duh).

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:

  • Opportunity gap analysis: Finding the best phrase and content opportunities for your site.
  • Subject matter selection, brainstorming and analysis: Building a content plan based on the opportunity gap analysis.
  • Sourcing and creating the content: Passing this information on to your team, and continuously building/refining the team’s ability to create great stuff.
  • Stacking the deck: Maximizing your ability to promote your content.

Step 1: Find the opportunity gaps

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.

Find the gap

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:

mozcon quality page

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.

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And, of course, take a look at your top traffic-driving terms:

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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.

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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?

Determine 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.

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Then, I’ll hop on OpenSiteExplorer and look at my site’s authority versus the site just above mine. Whoa:

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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.

Document opportunity gap

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:

mozcon 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.

Research what folks are saying and what they want to hear

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.

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Yeah. No.

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.

Create the collection

First, create and access your collection:

  1. Set up a Google Alert for all opportunity phrases, and anything related. Set them to type ‘everything’, deliver to ‘feed’.
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  2. Subscribe to those alerts in Reader.
  3. Group related subscriptions into folders.mozcon reader folders

You’ll start collecting all of the articles and posts into that folder. When you’re ready to harvest

  1. Make the folder feed page public. Don’t worry about other folks finding it. First, they can pull the same data. Second, the page URLs aren’t exactly intuitive—it’s unlikely competitors will stumble on them. If you’re really paranoid, make the page public for a short time, do our analysis, and then turn it off again.
  2. Grab the Atom feed URL for the page: Click ‘Manage Subscriptions’ at the bottom of the Reader page, then click the ‘Folders and Tags’ tab. Click the RSS icon to make the page public. Navigate to the page. Then copy the URL for the ‘Atom Feed’ link.

The stuff I always include in a collection:

  • Google Alert feeds for my opportunity gap phrases;
  • Twitter search feeds for the same thing.
  • Google alerts for any related terms.

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.

I wrote an entire e-book about this process, if you want to go into more depth.

Analyze the collection

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:

  1. Take the atom feed link (be sure you use the atom feed link, which starts with ‘feed:’ instead of ‘http:’, not the page link) and navigate to portent.co/thegram.
  2. Paste the link into the field and click ‘Ngramanate!’mozcon grammanator
  3. Let it work its magic.
  4. Voila: You’ve got a list of top terms, bigrams and trigrams.

mozcon ngram result

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 your content

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.

mozcon: pay crap, get crap

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.

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:

  1. Go back to your Google Reader account. Remember the feeds you set up? You’re going to use them again, here.
  2. Review the feeds for your opportunity gap phrases.
  3. Find the posts that really interest you, and that you think will be really valuable to your audience.
  4. Schedule using Timely.
  5. Repeat for up to 10 posts.

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.

Dots connected. Content written. Life is good.

So, go back through this entire process:

  1. We found opportunity gaps and recorded them, so we have a solid starting point.
  2. Then we used that to build an entire monitoring and brainstorming process. That delivers a headline list that has an analytical foundation.
  3. Then we sourced content based on the writers that match our opportunities and subject matter.
  4. And finally, we promoted content to an audience we’ve already served, by curating great third-party content for that audience.

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.

Lessons learned

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.

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Don’t be a jackass. It’s often tempting to try to surf on trending issues. If you do, do it carefully:

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I don’t think I have to say anything else about that.

Measure a lot

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:

  • Tweets
  • Facebook likes
  • Stumbles

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.

Good enough, isn’t

That’s a lot of stuff. But the most important things to understand are:

  • Good enough doesn’t work any more.
  • You need a systematic, documented approach to content if you’re going to get consistent results and produce good stuff. You can use the approach I just outlined, or create your own. Either way, make sure it’s documented and measured.

Other stuff

 

tags : conversation marketing

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12 Comments

  1. David

    Ian, I’d *like* to say that this is a great post, but it’s much more than that. Thanks for taking the Gap analysis all the way through to Analysis in a very understandable, step-by-step process. I want to finish this comment now so I can head off to Twitter and share this post, and then come back and re-read and then apply this terrific set of information, thanks again!
    David

  2. (Off Topic) FYI – Under the post in the “Other Stuff” section, the first link (How to: Write a decent SEO recommendation) points to a source page.
    Awesome post, thanks for the slides!

  3. Amen. The rules of content marketing are changing, but not because of Google or anything like that, it’s mostly a change in the environment entirely. People are growing up with the web, they know when they are being presented with crap and when there’s something really worth looking at.
    This is a great guide to start getting great content out the door. The next thing to do is probably the most important: do the work. It’s easy to sit back and just nod your head to all of this insight, but to anyone reading this I would challenge you to give it a try yourself.
    You may be surprised.

  4. Ian

    @Arsen Thanks for catching that – all fixed

  5. Great stuff Ian. It’s common to hear phrases like gap analysis and content marketing thrown together in sentences and articles, but you wonder if it’s hot air or if people really put the thought in to it. Clear you did, must have taken you forever. Congrats on awesome piece!

  6. Rose

    Here’s another tip – take the url of the most popular articles in your Google reader, and put them through SEMRush – you’ll see the actual terms they are ranking for – and sometimes this is a big surprise, with pages ranking for really unusual stuff.
    Gives you a whole new insight into what G is looking for

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you! It’s about time designers, developers, marketers, companies and clients starting valuing content properly and understand its tangible benefits. It’s not just an after thought to fill up web page templates but the core principle behind the entire project!

  8. Rob

    Hi Ian,
    Just wanted to say thanks for the putting in the effort to do this massive post. As someone looking to take a content marketing plan from tone of voice and ‘what style of content we want to deliver’ guides to an actual plan of what to produce, this is both really helpful, and motivational.
    There’s plenty of ‘expert’ blogs on how you ‘need to create great content’ and ’10 killer headline types’, but precious little on actually producing relevant content that has logical reasoning and trackable metrics to measure success.

  9. Braaaavoooooo! I’m making this required reading for all of my client inquiries.

  10. Wow, I wish I had read this article before our content marketing meeting today. It answered several fundamental questions that were brought up. It’s great to have a writer explain specific actionable steps rather than a typical article saying: “5 reasons why content is important!” Thank you sir. Thank you.

  11. Thanks for this post Ian. When companies start investing in content everybody wins. I look forward to the changes that will need to be made in our industry.

  12. Marcus

    Echoing what previous commenters said, this was an awesome post, Ian. I stumbled onto it from a link on Sphinn.
    There are so many blog posts that say “create great content” but yours is the first that walks through the whole process, step by step, from start to finish. If anything, it resembles a professional newsroom operation more than any “new media” agency.
    Writers have been the underdogs throughout history. Hopefully, Google’s power is giving content–and by extension, writers–more respect.
    Keep up the great work!

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