My end goal with every post is to provide insight and hopefully, sometimes, inspiration. And while I have approached the topic of content strategy, I haven’t yet provided any real concrete examples of it in practice…
So I thought I would reach out to some of my favorite content creators and strategists to get their thoughts on something that is not talked about enough; content strategy as it relates to production and results.
Meet The Content Panelists
Kieran Flanigan – Kieran loves online marketing. He has worked for both large and small brands to create online strategies focused on international growth. He is currently the Online marketing Manager for Marketo and blogs as Search Brat.
Neal Dougan – Neal is the Owner of Evoke SEO, a London based search marketing and web development company. Neal focuses on the design side of content marketing, as can be seen in his recent You vs. John Paulson campaign.
Onto the discussion:
Where have you seen content strategy have the greatest impact, either within your organization or one of your client’s?
I have to admit that, like many people, my past content successes have sometimes been a bit of an accident. Obviously, some pieces were better than others, had more effort put into them, etc., but I can’t say that my approach was particularly strategic. Probably the first exception was the Google Algo History on SEOmoz, because we built it with the intent to make it a “living document” and keep promoting.
The impact of that became evident when Penguin hit and interest in the algorithm jumped. Traffic spiked, months after the document’s initial launch, and it’s only gone up in the 7 months since Penguin 1. It’s been pretty amazing to watch.
Unfortunately I am limited as to examples I can provide due to confidentiality. ShellShock are predominantly producing infographics right now and recently had a campaign which worked exceptionally well for the client and achieved great viral uptake through social media and careful seeding. The reason it was so successful is because we had a strong concept targeted at a specific demographic: the right message delivered to the right audience. The graphic has reached #8 on the entire Visual.ly site (over 20K entries) for most viewed, with over 150k views and rising. Between the Visual.ly page and the host page it has had over 70k pins, 130k likes 65.2k stumbles and 500+ tweets. I have been told it is the most viewed page on the client’s website (I didn’t have direct access to analytics).
I know many SEOs are weary and derisory of infographics but they can be a fantastic medium if produced well. You only need to look at work from people like David McCandless, Column Five and Pop Chart Labs (and of course ShellShock!) to see that the medium can be executed beautifully for stunning results.
It’s a shame that such a respected form of design has been hit with a bad name due to all the spammy, cheap, rubbish being pumped out on a budget. A massive proportion of infographics are pushed out with no direction or purpose and fail miserably to engage. Successful content campaigns always come down to the same thing: targeted concept, creativity and execution – and I can’t believe how few people manage to get that right.
All the campaigns I manage have their placements on a variety of blogs and hub sites. We only seed in a handful of the best IG directories and don’t consider this as the strategy for outreach. Campaigns that rely purely on paid directory postings are not going to get the same results as creating something engaging and shared with a target audience. ShellShock infographics have great results time and again.
On a personal level I decided that sharing more of what I do, of blogging more and answering questions in public would be an effective strategy as I grew my business. Was that a ‘content strategy’? I guess so, though I’m not sure I embarked on it 2+ years ago with that buzzword in mind. Today I do credit much (most really) of my success to producing content and doing so on my own terms.
Much of what I’ve done over the years on Blind Five Year Old is use it as a dogfooding platform. There’s no better way to learn than by doing.
On a professional level the one client who I can point to as embracing a content marketing strategy is ReadyForZero. They’re in the crazy vertical of personal finance which is rife with link-centric operators.
I believe these succeed because they provide a robust, up-to-date and valuable resource from multiple sources in a well-designed wrapper. While they aren’t specifically about the ReadyForZero product the content is very relevant which ensures that the audience who finds this content is more likely to convert. In short, the intent behind these resource centers matches ReadyForZero product.
Content strategy that is segmented, addressing different stops on the initial sales tube and re-cyclical journey of consumers (additional buy, upgrade, interaction), has the best impact.
Let me use laptops for example. A consumer is at the beginning of the initial sales tube. They want to compare and contrast different machines and manufacturers. Respective brands are not likely to host on-site information about other brands; that’s found more on a consumer reports-like site.
However, a brand may benefit from emulating the consumer report site, hosting competitor information (just not making the competitor link readily available). Consumers will get the initial information they seek, and will now be ready for the next portion of their journey, which in the best case leads to a sale. Addressing the consumer’s need (while seemingly contrary to brand intuition/interest), segmenting the buying journey, makes a powerful impact in this case.
The greatest impact varies. Follow your consumer to elucidate where to place and how to shape content. Get in their heads.
I think it’s pointless having a content strategy if it doesn’t impact on business metrics (whatever the company defines those to be). It might feel great churning out content and seeing your visitor metrics go up, but if in 6 months there is very little impact on your bottom line, it’s going to leave you with a pretty empty feeling.
I also think it’s important to break down what you mean by content strategy. For example, a company may spend weeks redoing their FAQ page, because they’ve found it’s a really important page in the purchase cycle for certain personas. This is still part of your content strategy but examples like this dont’ get talked about as much in the industry because it’s obsessed with links, so that’s what they define as the core metrics for a content strategy, how many links you get. There is nothing wrong with links being one of the metrics. I think Larry Kims post on getting a link from the Wall Street Journal proves how much link building is just evolving into PR (ironic since PR agencies were being told SEO and Social agencies were going to kill their business). But content strategy is a big topic and runs across your entire business.
From my own experience of launching a pretty successful content strategy, you need to speak business metrics to get buy in, to really help your vision become a reality. That content strategy was successful at driving top of funnel metrics like visits and social shares, but it also delivered a huge amount of leads.
At Marketo I can look at every aspect of our content strategy as we have such great analytics. For example, in a presentation I recently gave in London, I talked about looking at the first touch pipeline and multi touch pipeline created by each content asset. The metrics I shared in that presentation are just a sample of how I can look at what impact content is making across our funnel.
Where content makes the most impact is entirely up to what business problem you are trying to solve with it.
Content strategy is a deep sigh of relief for clients. They get it, the pain points of workflow, broken update processes, shitty CMS systems, are things that every organization is aware of and suffers from.. When you tell them there is a cure for that ailment AKA A PLAN, and a system for managing content built around THEM, they get very excited.
Seeing the effect that a well thought out and documented workflow has on an organization is a beautiful thing! Instead of struggling with broken processes content producers suddenly have time and energy to IMPROVE rather than just maintaining status quo.
We have seen it most effective in boring niches. Because the landscape is so grey and bland, anything a bit different stands out like wearing a white suit to a funeral. Then what you eventually see is other companies in that niche try and do something similar, something more inventive. 9 times out of 10 they don’t and then make’s your content even better.
Basically we have seen content gain links for clients that they would never get without it. We don’t do this because it’s hip or what the cool kids are doing, we genuinely think it’s the best way to get links and create brand visibility.
Tell us a bit about your workflow for content development.
For me, the best content always starts with finding a gap – not necessarily something no one has done (that’s rare), but something where I’m just not satisfied with the breadth or depth of what’s out there. From there, it’s a bit organic – I try to find the type of content that best fits the need. In other words, I never think “I should make an infographic!” – I try to let form follow function.
First stage of any project is to assess the clients target demographic to scope the forms of content that will appeal to them. It’s essential to put together the right content to engage the niche. From researching the niche you can ascertain popular themes and topics; and any gaps to be filled. The research stage is the most crucial and not to be undervalued, this is the make or break for the project and where the strongest engaging concepts are created.
Second stage: researching your data and information is again very important -the most successful infogaphics have strong concepts and data, finished with great design. You have to be resourceful to find the best data sets and sources to use and I cannot stress how important it is to only use reliable sources.
Design/creative stage turns your information into something visually appealing and makes the information more easy to digest. People make initial judgments on the credibility of content with their eyes, therefore design will impact how your content is perceived.
Outreach and seeding is considered at planning stage so when the content is being designed it should have your end placement goals in mind. Remember you are creating content not for yourself but for your niche community. Another mistake I see often is clients interrupting the flow by having strong design opinions when they lack any visual literacy. The end results always suffer in these cases.
Final stage is tracking, assessment and keeping the momentum of sharing sustained. A strong piece of content can circulate through social media for months. Its a great thing when you spot new mentions on social media for an older piece of content and you watch the new ripples spread for a second wave.
It actually differs from client to client because of the dependencies on the niche, type of content, current content assets and production resources at hand. So the details of workflow are often quite different client to client. However, there’s a broad framework I often use to help guide content development.
I start by determining different query intent for that product/site/service. Once I have intent down, I map query syntax to that intent which creates, most of the time, a bunch of root terms and modifier combinations that I can assign to a specific intent. From there it’s relatively easy to start creating the right content to match the query intent and ensuring it’s optimized for specific queries.
I’m fond of saying:
‘target the keyword, optimize the intent‘ – Tweet this
It depends on the respective project, but I kind of shadow an old reading tactic of SQRRR (survey, question, read, recite, review). So, I’ll (in mind) survey what variety of information (pictures, video, text, etc) best conveys a message. Then, I echo what consumer questions the content will address. The ‘read’ part becomes the composition part. Then, I get in the head of the consumer, reciting the offered information, finally reviewing for modification or improvement.
I went through a little of my process on this guest post over on SEOMoz, a guide to TOFU. I am definitely no expert in content development, I am just eager to learn so there are probably lot’s of better methods of doing this. But I would say the workflow depends a lot on the problem you are trying to solve. But everything should usually start with a problem.
For example, if my problem is lack of awareness in my market, I may decide to start a blog (as John says – a blog is not a content strategy), I might start with personas, my content sweet spot, break this into topics, do competitive analysis, look at my available resources and then put an editorial calendar together to cover some of these topics (based on resources I have available).
But I could also have a very specific problem that I try and solve with targeted content campaigns. For example (sorry I can’t give links to the actual content), from looking at the analytics I showed in my presentation above, I can see there is a particular type of buyer (persona) who is struggling to make their way through our funnel. My development process is to do as much analysis I can on where I think that journey breaks down, make assumptions on what the problem is (backed by analytics), create new content to try and address that problem (this resulted in an ebook, slideshare, specific lead nurture track and a couple of other assets). Each of these were designed to address the problems we assumed in the journey. Once completed and set live, you dive back into your analytics to see what worked.
I don’t produce content – as a Content Strategist working on behalf of clients I plan for the creation, delivery and governance of it. My work then helps support and empower the people who actually produce the content within an organization. The workflow is different for each case, but should always revolve around the needs and capabilities of real people!
There’s really not a great deal to it. We like to spend more time coming up with decent ideas that will get an emotional reaction than define our ‘target market’.
- Brainstorm creative ideas
- Edit to a shortlist
- Decide the platform for the content (should it be a video, infographic or post?)
- Figure out what people / websites would talk / write / host that piece of content
- Discuss the ideas with the client
- Research the data needed
- Design / create content
- Approval from client
- Release it
- Get the content in front of people through outreach and manual submission
- Celebrate with a curry and a few bottles of Bangla
- Watch the links and social mentions roll in
With major sweeping changes to the search landscape in 2012, how has this affected your approach to creating content?
If anything, the increasing unpredictability of Google and even rankings data has renewed my interest in content. I want to create pieces that actually provide value and have longevity, and not just troll for links.
I had already predicted what was going to happen and positioned ShellShock in the right place to take advantage of the new upsurge of content and creativity. Having 15+ years of design and illustration combined with 5 years online marketing put me in a rather unique position being able to straddle the two disciplines which has fast become in big demand. My biggest challenge looking forward is to is to keep evolving and offering new products without relying on infographics. I have some great ideas and can’t wait to get some new projects out there to show everyone.
It hasn’t really changed the way I approach creating content. It has, however, changed how I pitch it to clients and how it is received. It’s become far easier to secure resources as ‘content marketing’ has become a buzzword and the fear of black and white animals pouncing on search traffic has risen to near panic levels.
I look forward to working in a landscape that expects *more thought put forth regarding content. I’m excited, but it hasn’t changed my own original thoughts on creation.
This really hasn’t affected me at all.
STRUCTURED CONTENT!! Have you seen the amped-up google search pages for someone famous, or well known cultural institutions, movies, music? That is the future of the web. Its being popularized by Google as the Knowledge Graph. You MUST MUST MUST build well-structured content with rich metadata if you plan to survive the next wave of search, and the melting interface paradigms for that matter. Future-proof, people! Shit’s going semantic, we are teaching the machine to think instead of just retrieve…and it wants to think on your content. Mark that shit up yo!
It hasn’t affected our approach at all. I come from a design led background and consider myself a creative above the title of “Online Marketer”. Its second nature for me to want to create fun and interesting stuff rather than do the traditional / old school methods of link building / marketing.
We are lucky enough to have clients that want to do things differently and have confidence in giving us budget to create things that create a buzz for the brand. This trust enables us to really focus on creating something cool and not on how many links we’ve created, where a keyword ranks (yes I know this is still important!) If what we do isn’t deemed as SEO I’m not particularly bothered.
Do you leverage evergreen content as part of your overall content strategy? If so, how large of a role does it play?
Yes, I’m a big believer in evergreen content, but I think you have to be realistic about it. Some pieces naturally fit the evergreen idea and others don’t. If you try to make 100% of what you do evergreen, you’ll end up doing some ridiculous stuff. So, I focus on the small amount (maybe 5%) that has evergreen potential and I put sustained effort into those pieces.
I produce more one-off creative content and not high volume content fillers so focus on longevity. Therefore, evergreen does factor in most of ShellShock campaigns – obviously this is not always possible, for example, in situations of topical and seasonal content but I would say a large proportion of our work is with evergreen in mind.
Evergreen is often vital to a content strategy. I think of a content strategy as telling a story for that client over time. Evergreen are like major plot points in your (never ending) story. You want to be able to refer to them as you move forward and add characters, events and descriptions.
So you’ll have a number of climaxes in your story over time (as pieces go viral) but you want them in the framework of your plot and you want to encourage users to ‘keep reading’ even without those high point pieces.
Analogy pass or fail? You be the judge.
The evergreen concept is used well in shaping a brand’s legacy. (AJ’s post on content recall.) How is your brand’s story unfolding through time? What is your brand known for? Evergreen content helps cornerstone legacy. Let’s use Quora as an example. What are your respective vertical’s most pressing consumer questions? What are the benefits of your service/product? Evergreen content needs to address those questions, aligning a brand’s legacy with the needs of its consumers.
Quick warning here, I’ve had debates with people on the meaning of evergreen content, so apologies in advance if this isn’t what you asked . For example on GrayWolf’s blog he talks about evergreen content in a lot of different formats, both long and short term. This is what I’ve always taken from the term evergreen content.
If you look at the content we created for the #SocialSuccess site, you can see a lot of it is timeless. We created a lot of pieces that are going to be relevant for years. A great example is this Prezi, which was designed to really show social customer service in action, but in a way that’s really easy to understand e.g it’s a little more product-centric than your average top of funnel piece, but that mapped to how it was promoted.
At Marketo, we do a lot of smart things with our content. A great example is our Definitive Guide to Social Marketing. This was a really successful piece when it was first released a couple of years back, but with social media changing so much, the guys in the U.S. felt it needed an update. They totally rewrote it, added in influencers and released the new version in September. That updated piece has generated a massive amount of traffic, leads and pipeline for the business.
I think the big takeaway for evergreen content is continually look for opportunities to “repimp” popular pieces so you can get the maximum value out of them. This doesnt’ necessarily mean you should just keep rewriting popular content, you could turn them into different formats e.g. article to ebook, ebook to Webinar, Webinar to presentation at a conference.
Yes, evergreen content is something that exists in every content strategy I believe. Even the hottest shit minute-to-minute updating blog will have an about statement. It is just one of the important pieces in a larger whole. More often overlooked is ‘Social’ content, i.e. your content that exists on external channels, likely mostly social networks – that content (tweets, comments, facebook posts, etc.) is just as important (if not more so) than the static copy on your homepage.
I think it does play a big part as we want the content to remain as fresh as possible for as long as possible, but if you’re doing topical / current stuff then you are getting that quick burst of traffic / buzz / links then it tails of to nothing.
Without sounding too cheesy we aim to create content that will always remain interesting, if that’s evergreen then so be it. Combine the topical with something constant, make it look nice and you have great content that will get links, views and visitors in the short and long term. We want maximum ROI (visibility wise) on the lowest possible output (workload for us). This means we have more time to think and create.
Do you design a marketing and execution plan for your content prior to creating it?
I’d like to say “yes”, but that’s still something I’m working on. More and more, I definitely think about how a piece will roll out, when and how to do outreach, etc., but that’s a work in progress.
I put together a proposal that is to be agreed by myself and client for execution and expectations. This defines concept, timelines, pricing and estimated results. Results can be anticipated but never guaranteed, we make that clear to clients but with experience/case studies you can offer reassurance to clients that you know what you are doing and have the results to prove it.
Once you have all the variables in terms of niche, type of content, current assets, production resources and have you intent/syntax map you can design an editorial calendar which ensures you’re hitting the right intent at the right time (since many outside factors often trigger different intent). From there it’s a simple workflow process which you can propose and then iterate on as you move forward.
In general, my goal is to get people doing and learning faster rather than investing in an execution plan and process which nearly always changes as you get feedback from your efforts (also see: agile marketing).
It depends. Sometimes I’ll write a post for Content Muse to share a message. Sometimes it’s more of a passionate lightning storm. However, client projects have an end goal or goals of metrics in mind. You are a big champion of CRO and A/B testing; considering past successes and receptions is an advantage and tools of creation. Moreover, a piece of content may be a small part of a larger strategy, so execution wise, you have to consider how that piece serves the larger endeavor.
Yes, absolutely and this is something I’ve got better at over time. You need to have a promotion plan for any content development you do. This should be part of the initial planning, before you even begin writing. It will help you focus around topics that provide natural opportunities for promotion. You also want to start planning if there are any promotional aspects baked into the content e.g. influencers, some type of cool design or whatever it may be to capture interest for your content. Finishing 90% of the content only to realize there is nowhere to promote it, is a sure fire way to get your budget axed.
YES! Don’t make anything without a plan. Not even dinner. Mmmmm dinner. But seriously, I think if you have a solid business case for content, aligned to goals, and a plan for creating it you don’t necessarily need a ‘marketing’ plan for that, you have a raison d’être, that’s the starting point.
For anything else, don’t make it at all! Get rid of it! To help your content spread its wings a dissemination/marketing plan is clutch, but nothing is as important as aligning content to goals, and planning for its creation and governance.
Yes, a very basic plan. We try not to over complicate things too much. If the piece is very good and we feel it will have a wide appeal then it sort of promotes itself. People sharing it do the work for us.
We tend to work more on instinct than an actual plan. It’s more enjoyable that way and allows you to remain creative when doing the more boring side (outreach, sourcing sites etc.) The plan will vary depending on the content. For example we recently did an infographic that needed very little pushing as the subject was so popular and appeals to so many people. When we have stuff like that it makes our job easy.
Thank you so much to everyone who participated.
If this got your mind racing, you may also want to check out my post Talking Content Strategy with Kristina Halvorson, where I had the opportunity to pick her brain on content planning, production, and management.
Now it’s your turn to answer, same questions, what do YOU think?