Written by Jay Ratkowski
If you printed every blog post about content strategy, you could build a paper stairway to the moon. Unfortunately, most of these posts simply advocate creating bulk content and are extremely thin on the strategy aspect. What’s worse, is there is an abundance of content marketers trying to make a rather questionable living posing as writers.
This bothers me, as I love to write. It’s the one thing I do every day without fail. I’ve written countless short stories, hundreds of blog posts, and even some pretty long tweets. On occasion, I’ve been lucky enough to be paid as a writer.
Journalism was my original career choice, but I bailed before I even started. Maybe I just chickened out, but back in the early days of my undergrad career I saw several friends getting beat up by the writing profession. Newspapers were already consolidating and the job outlook was grim. Over ten years later, journalism has mostly been replaced by user-generated content and outsourced writing.
But yet, the ability to distribute writing is more powerful than ever. Self-publishing is a real thing, and it works (assuming your goal is to be read, not be rich). A post like this can get read by thousands of people in no time at all, and the dynamic nature of the web makes it look like a front page story. In the past, Op-Ed pieces like this were stuffed in the dark corners of newspapers and rarely seen.
The only problem is…
This incredible distribution power has certainly gotten the attention of the business and marketing world. And unfortunately, it’s often translated to poor results. Those results are abundant under the umbrella of content marketing.
Before we get carried away here, I’m not decrying the entire concept of content marketing. As an online marketer, I learn a ton from blogs that belong to other agencies. Perficient gets clients because we’ll put out a helpful blog post that impresses a business leader. It works, but like ALL marketing, your message needs to be skillfully crafted.
And this is where content marketing often goes astray. It’s fallen into the hands of black hat SEO’s who are simply playing the latest game to take advantage of Google. As much as I want to call out some of the celebrities and thought leaders of the SEO world who promote this methodology, I’ll simply give a farcical example of what I consider black hat content.
We’ve all seen content of this poor caliber. There are literally hundreds of pieces like this posted daily just on the major online marketing aggregators. Who knows how much more vapid clickbait is running wild on the web. For anyone who considers writing an art, it’s depressing to ponder for too long.
But until Google finds a way to punish 200 word list posts or paraphrased press releases, we’re not going to escape the barrage of opportunistic marketers gaming the system. But as business people we can still avoid getting roped in, getting blasted with the inevitable algorithm update, and looking foolish in front of our customers.
So what factors are in play here? How do you know if you’re falling for a black hat content strategy? How do create a strategy that is actually sustainable and likely to help your business? The list below covers some questions you should be asking yourself. Oh and yes, lists can make for valuable content; they just need to provide real value.
Are you actually helping people?
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The biggest reason nobody is blasting the black hat content marketers is because it’s under the guise of being helpful. But you really need to look at the content you’re publishing and ask whether it’s helping your customers.
The reason most good copywriters charge by the word is to subsidize the hours of research and countless revisions that go into the final product. If you’re hiring someone on the cheap with no real writing experience, or outsourcing to a non-native English speaker, they are not going to put in this effort. It’s a fact, and there are examples all over the web. Think of the image this portrays to your customers. They’re coming to you to learn about your products/services and you’re giving them drivel.
When you’re trying to explain complex topics to people, you need to have writers that understand the topic. There is no way around it.
I realize that spending $150-200 for a 1,000 word high quality article about your topic might be expensive when you’re thinking of a large scale content campaign – but if you cannot make that effort profitable, how will you make a poor quality article at 1/3 the cost work? Also, while the cheap article might get some short term traffic, the high quality one can be a useful reference for years to come. That’s often referred to as “evergreen content” but really, it’s just good writing.
Who are you trying to help?
Just like any marketing efforts, targeting new versus existing customers will drastically alter your strategy. Really, you should be thinking about this on a more micro level. Too often businesses will define their target customer as people who spend money. Those businesses (with the exception of Amazon) don’t last very long.
Before you embark on a quest to produce content, figure out which of your customers are being under-served. As a digital marketing group, our target might be CEOs and CMOs of mid-sized companies who are currently trying to manage search efforts internally with insufficient resources. That’s a pretty typical scenario when we pitch to clients, and most agencies would agree.
But what about your company? Who are the people coming to you for help? Why are they coming to you?
If you’re really lost with those questions, go to the people in the trenches. Talk to the folks on the phone, be they customer support, sales, account management, whatever. Ask them what questions they keep getting. Find out what frustrates them and your customers. Ask them who they are talking to and how knowledgeable they are about your company. This can be a fantastic starting point to pinpoint your target.
How are you helping people?
This post is meant to be a bit inspirational and offer some light advice around implementation. It started as an opinion piece and melded into sort of intro to content strategy. But my main objective is getting people to question the mainstream ideas about content marketing and identify the gaps between black hat content and actual strategy.
Let’s look at a real world example that is easy to grasp.
Leviton knows a lot of their customers are DIYers attempting to do electrical work without a strong understanding of home wiring standards or even electricity as a whole. They’re helping by providing a detailed walk-through of a product installation that caters specifically to this audience. The guide is specific to one product, but the guide is useful for anyone installing a GFCI receptacle.
Certainly, you do not need to produce an elaborate video to help your customers. But your company and target audience will generally lend itself to a specific format for your content. Search for the types of questions you’re trying to answer and use the existing results to try to judge how your audience looks for help.
If you were doing the B2B version of the Leviton solution, you’d find that electricians tend to post on discussion forums rather than blogs or YouTube. They heavily use industry jargon, are very concise and brief in most of their writing. If you were trying to support this audience, you’d want to use the same approach with your on-site materials. Having a library of technical resources and solution guides might be the best approach.
What’s your end game?
Obviously, you want sales. But converting content to revenue can be a terribly convoluted process.
So does that mean you need to write hard sales copy? Not at all. More likely, you need to create opportunities for conversion and improve your tracking process.
On the e-commerce side, there are a lot of possibilities. Maybe you want to produce content that can help close a sale. This could be a buying guide, an expanded product use guide, etc. Or it could be a piece that is of interest to your potential customers, covering your industry at a broader level (the typical company blog). In either case, your hope is people read this content and become customers. You just need to decide if you expect them to buy directly, or maybe sign up for your email list and purchase via a later promotional effort.
How will you measure success?
While it’s true that great & popular content can have a halo effect for the organic visibility of your entire website, this leads to some rather difficult to follow metrics. Usually managers want to know how their investment fairly directly results in sales.
For those instances where people don’t fill out a lead form from a blog post, or if you’re an e-commerce company, it comes down more to tracking. When you sell products online, valuation is easy. But regardless of your business model, you MUST come up with value for your non-transactional conversions. Avinash has you covered in this department.
If you have revenue and goal values in place, you can use the wonderful metric of page value.
This will definitely help connect the dots between content consumption and actual top line impact. By looking at the value of all goals and purchases that included views of your target content, you can get a picture of the return from your writing efforts.
If you are writing content around a specific product category or offering, you can look at your break-even point or target return level, and use this data to determine if you’re hitting the mark. Mr. Kaushik again has an excellent summary of this process, if you need greater detail.
Making sense of it all
So what do you do with all of this? If you’re Perficient, maybe you say the goal of your content strategy is to provide engaging insight into digital marketing trends and strategies to establish credibility to executives in medium to large B2B retailers, with a goal of driving X leads per month that close at a rate within one standard deviation of other channels (this is an imaginary goal I just made up, so hopefully our marketing team doesn’t hate me for this).
If you seriously think about all these questions and come up with detailed answers, your content strategy will not suck. How do I know? Because you’ll terrify the content spammers who might try to pitch you on their services. Presenting this kind of specific target and goal will separate qualified content strategists from pretenders, most of the time. To further sort through the rest, ask about the kinds of objectives writers have had with past clients. If they aren’t speaking a similar language, move on.