Posted by Adria.Saracino
During my SearchLove San Diego presentation last week, I talked about "Why Your Content Marketing Initiatives are Failing (And How to Fix Them)." I highlighted eight ways content marketing programs can fail or suffer, along with ways to prevent or overcome these various obstacles.
I separated my presentation into three distinct "sections" of failure: tactical, strategic, and internal. While all sections and associated #fails are important to address, strategic failures are the ones that tend to affect the other two. For example, if the strategy is off, then how you tactically execute your content and campaigns will suffer. Likewise, if you can't prove your "strategic game," you won't get the internal buy-in required to set up an optimal content marketing program.
Thus, strategic is the area you really want to focus on when optimizing your content marketing initiatives. While there are many ways you can up your strategic game, there are three biggies. I'll go through each of these in more depth than my presentation allowed, and provide resources for additional reading throughout.
First way to fail: Confusing content marketing with link building
Let me just say it: Content marketing is not synonymous with link building. We shouldn't make content only to address those "viral" topics in hopes of "winning the internet" and attracting a lot of links and social shares to our brand. While this could help spread brand awareness and attract potential customers, if we're not using content to address users' wants and needs throughout their purchasing paths, we're just attracting more eyeballs but then not knowing what to do with them once they are on us.
The fix: Know where link building fits into the full promotional landscape
Content marketing isn't only a tool for spreading brand awareness. Rather, it is a philosophy that should touch every part of your website and offline marketing initiatives. Since contentâ€”written, visual, you name itâ€”is a part of just about every marketing channel, we need to start treating content marketing not as its own separate silo, but as an integrated part of all the marketing opportunities we have available to us.
So, what does this mean? It means we need to understand what type of content is required in order to get our customers to convert and become brand loyalists.
Let's look at two different scenarios. Say Brand A is amazing at creating that "viral content for link building," but doesn't have very informative or user-friendly content on the rest of its site. Brand A probably isn't going to see an increase in sales because it is losing customer interest or trust by not helping them throughout the purchasing journey with its content.
On the flip side, say Brand B creates "viral" content and uses that opportunity to lead those visitors to more useful content further down the funnel with strong calls to action. Brand B is more likely to see its content marketing initiatives leading to sales because it's holding customers' hands throughout the purchasing journey.
If you want to be like Brand B, you need to stop looking at content marketing as only a brand-awareness tactic. Link building is fundamentally a brand awareness tactic because we're getting coverage on third-party sites, oftentimes on ones whose editors never heard of our brand before. To illustrate where link building fits into the promotional landscape, I've created the below image that matches the different types of promotion we can do to the funnel. Note, I've included link building under the umbrella of outreach, as while outreach doesn't only include link building, this is where that tactic typically falls.
As you can see, PR and outreach/link building functions are only suited for content that addresses the mid/top and the very bottom of the purchasing funnel. If you've ever done any outreach, you know the hardships that come along with trying to build links to content that is very brand or conversion focused, such as e-commerce product pages. The reason it's hard is because publishers do not care about your brand unless you're willing to pay for the coverageâ€”hence why advertising is such a great promotional tool for content throughout most of the funnel.
Now, you might be questioning why some of the other promotional activities sit where they do on the funnel in the above graphic. Please note that you can find ways to use these promotional activities for content in other areas of the funnel, depending on the content topic and exact angle. However, in my experience this is where each promotional function should be in order to see the best results.
The main takeaway here is that you want to match what stage of the funnel your content is addressing to the appropriate promotional activity in order to see the best returns. So, don't try and force link building as the main promotional tactic for all your content because chances are you'll meet a lot of publisher resistance to content addressing those other areas of the funnel. You do not need to host a mind-blowing promotional campaign for every piece of content you create, so stop chugging money down the drain. It's not about promoting harder, but rather promoting smarter.
Second way to fail: No, or improper, goal alignment and tracking
There are two scenarios here. First, many companies churn out content and dub it "content marketing" without any real goals mapped out. I see this a lot with blog content, where companies decide they need to have a blog and just start churning out articles that they think are cool, not really looking at the results to determine if it's making the business money.
The second scenario is only tracking short-term goals. I see this a lot among companies that confuse content marketing with link building (as noted above). These companies often have one goal in mind: quantifying if it went viral or not. This includes monitoring metrics like links, social shares, and mentions.
However, these metrics are only the first step to making money. Rarely do links placed result in direct sales, particularly with top-of-the-funnel content. Thus, these companies aren't aligning their content marketing initiatives to the appropriate goals.
The fix: Know the different types of goals and metrics for tracking
All [content] marketing goals and their subsequent tracking metrics can be compiled into four buckets. These buckets quite nicely match with the different stages of the customer purchasing funnel.
For content covering top-of-the-funnel topics, we often measure consumption metrics to better understand if those topics are "sticky" to our target audience(s) and indeed spreading brand awareness. Once we get into heavy search and consideration content, we start trying to find ways to turn those visitors consuming our content into leads. From there, we hope that it turns into a sale, and then we hope to retain them.
What I don't like about the above visual though, is that while it helps map goals to the funnel, it seems to have a very definitive start and end point. Really, you want to figure out how to make your goals cyclical. Thus, I like the below visualization of these buckets a bit better.
A cycle is a better visualization, because think about it: we're hoping to get our audience to consume our content, which we hope will lead them to a sale. Once they finish with their purchase, we hope to retain them as loyal customers, who will then ideally become repeat consumers and buyers (hopefully bringing new customers along the ride with them via word of mouth and brand advocacy!).
In the above visualization, I put a red box around the consumption metrics because unfortunately our industry tends to concentrate only on these short-term measurements. Yes, new customer acquisition is important to growth; but a lot of us ignore the opportunity to increase revenue by investing in community and retention building. In order to realize our full content marketing potential, we need to start mapping our content to goals throughout the cycle, using the above KPIs to ensure they are actually measurable.
Third way to fail: Not doing the research required to devise a strategy
I get this question a lot: "What's the difference between content marketing and content strategy." This is how I look at it. Content marketing is an umbrella term to describe any marketing function that includes content (see why I think it's so integrated with other channels? Pretty much everything includes content!). Content strategy is one of the threads (along with your brand message and editorial standards) that weaves your content marketing initiatives together and aims them at a specific end goal.
To say it bluntly, having a content strategy is essential to running a successful content marketing program. If there is no strategy, it could result in a bunch of inconsistent pieces of content that aren't all working in unison toward the same end goal. Inconsistency is the kiss of death in marketing, because without consistency you can easily lose customers' trust. And who gives their credit cards to a brand they don't trust?
And when I say "strategy," I don't mean just making a wild claim and saying, "This is our strategy." Rather, I mean developing a strategy that has the most likely chance of success; one that is the least risky to pursue (or that is a calculated risk). How do you come up with an actual strategy that takes risk and forecasting into account? You need to start with research.
The fix: Do THIS type of research
This is the process I use here at Distilled when a client comes to us and says he/she wants a content strategy. It can be broken down into four distinct chunks of research, demonstrated in the visual below.
I'll go into more detail about each of those research components below. Once the research is complete (we're talking, ideally, 2-3 months out), all of it can by synthesized to produce a content strategy.
However, remember when I said the strategy is just one of three threads needed to direct your content outputs? You also need to ensure you have a sticky brand message (this can be for internal use only or both internal and external use) and editorial standards. Before creating any content, you'll need to filter your strategy through these other threads in order to ensure consistency.
Essentially, this is doing the research necessary to really understand your brand and current performance.
You want to answer the following four questions:
How are we currently performing?
Where are we underperforming/where are the opportunities for improvement?
Are we measuring the right things? (i.e. is tracking and measurement set up correctly?)
What is our USP?
To answer these four questions, below are the actions to take to get a clear understanding of your product/service and current performance.
Look in Google Analytics: A good place to start is Google Analytics. Here you'll be able to look at the company's online performance over (at minimum) the past year. The areas you'll want to explore include:
What is traffic like? Any seasonality?
Unique vs. new visitors?
Any significant geographic info?
What pages were visited most?
What is the typical visitor flow? Can we aggregate typical paths?
What are considered conversions? Are goals set up?
What pages get the most conversions?
How did conversions perform last year? (Also, how much money did we make?)
Where did visitors spend the most time?
How long did visitors stay on the site?
How did visitors get to the site? Direct vs. referral vs. organic vs. paid?
What are the top referring URLs/sources and keywords?
What is the breakdown of non-branded vs. branded traffic like?
Any interesting mobile vs. web data?
Any significant traffic from social?
Top landing pages?
Do a technical audit: This is also the time to do (or redo) a technical audit. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel here with more info, considering my colleague Geoff Kenyon wrote this ginormous post a while back on how to do a technical audit and it's ridiculously complete.
The only other portion I'd add to this is to make sure you're paying attention to the site structure from not only a technical, but also a user perspective. You'll want to make sure your IA is setup optimally for mass content production later on. Trust me; you don't want to get into the business of creating a ton of content and pushing it live when your site structure is disorganized. Do the work to figure out how you should setup your site first so you don't make mistakes of redirecting content later. Here are two resources I like a lot regarding setting up your IA for content and SEO success.
Conduct a content audit: Doing a content audit isn't so difficult, it's just a monster of a job because you're weeding through a lot of web pages. There are a ton of different metrics you can gather about your content to do this. What I typically pull includes:
Landing page URLs
Unique page views
Time on page
Overall goal completion
Breakdown of goal completions
CPA (if applicable)
# unique root linking domains
Page Authority/Domain authority
Social Metrics (# FB shares, tweet, likes, +1s, etc.)
Once all this data is pulled, I'll go through the content assigning a quality score to each page and assigning it a stage in the funnel. Later on I'll go back to find gaps in the quality and funnel stages being addressed by the content. While a content audit might not be the most fun thing you can do as a marketer, I'd argue it's one of the most insightful. Oftentimes you find pieces to look into for your technical audit, so don't skip this step. You need to know where you've been to know where you're going with your content!
Note: ideally you're pulling all pages on your site that have content. However, depending on your site this might be unreasonable, so you can break it down into chunks. For example, if you're an online directory with millions of really thin pages, you can start pulling just your blog/resource center content. Know, though, that ideally you do a content audit of all your web content!
Benchmark current keyword rankings: While the value of keyword rankings is argued to be diminishing and changing, I like to look at this now to be able to pinpoint areas for more organic growth later on. Also, this can be a great tool for getting buy-in from superiors to do content marketing, particularly when you compare current rankings to those of competitors!
Make sure you know the company in and out: If you are an agency and this is a new client, you'll also probably want to ask more general questions about the company in order to get a really clear sense of how it operates and makes money. These would include things like the following:
How does the brand earn customers and revenue?
What words/phrases would the company use to describe itself?
What can the company tell us about its customers?
Ask the company this, "What makes you different from your competitors?"
What is the company's current brand message? (It's a good idea to see if they [think they] have one!)
What are the different product/services it offers?
What is the company's organizational structure?
Who else creates content for the website?
What does the current content development process look like?
Who will have sign-off on any work that we do?
What is the typical lead time for sign off?
Does the company have a PR/outreach team and/or social team, internally or externally?
What are the goals for this engagement?
How is our point of contact measured? What metrics does he/she report on?
Does the company have any technical or PR launches coming up? Can the company provide us a calendar for the rest of this year?
What other marketing initiatives does the company use to draw in new business?
Does the company have a newsletter? if so, how many subscribers? How active is it? How engaged are recipients? (you'll want to know this for customer research later)
Is the company currently working with any other external agencies? If so, what do they work on?
Pro tip: One of my favorite things to do is to go through the sales process for my client's company, pretending I am a customer. This process must include going through customer service. Another great idea would be to have your mom or dad go through the process and you can watch them. This could be effective if the client's industry doesn't cater to internet savvy marketers.
If you're in-house and don't necessarily need to go through as granular of a discovery period about your own company, check out this video on how you can mine your sales department for content marketing.
Competitor research is so important to making an informed content plan. There are a lot of really good resources out there on how to conduct competitor research, everything from the more traditional to an analysis viewed through a content marketing lens.
I won't go into too much detail about how to conduct this, as it varies depending on your niche and also your level of investment (for example, that latter link suggests conducting a content audit on your competitors' contentâ€”bloody brilliant, but time consuming!).
I definitely look at this through a content lens when I need to prioritize what to look for. Some questions I ask once I know what competitors I'm targeting include:
What products/services do they offer? How are they different from ours?
What are the competitors' brand messages?
What are the competitors' USPs? What makes them different?
What types of marketing are competitors doing (i.e. social, content, offline, etc.)?
How are they performing with these different marketing channels?
What type of content do they create?
How is this content performing?
Do they have a community? If so, how big and engaged is it?
What are they doing well? What could they be doing better?
How are competitors performing in SERPs?
Pro tip: One of my favorite things to do, like above, is go through the sales process for each competitor, and this process must include going through customer service.
Oh, and I really like Annie Cushing's article on mining competitors' backlinks.
(Online) market research
I put the "online" in parentheses because there are many more ways to do market research than just through the web, such as via focus groups or direct email surveys/census data. However, since we're predominantly focused on search as an industry, I'll highlight a few main areas to direct your attention.
Conduct keyword research throughout the funnel: Again, the tools available to do this are diminishing, but conducting keyword research allows you to understand users intent when they search for information. You'll want to use your findings to prioritize your content initiatives later, most likely addressing the ripest opportunities for search domination first.
I'm not going to get into too much detail about how to conduct keyword research because there are a TON of articles out there already. However, I cannot stress enough how important getting creative and conducting keyword research for opportunities throughout a customers' potential purchasing path is. Don't just focus on those conversion-focused head terms. Think bigger and further removed from the purchase.
Check out Google Trends: Mike Tekula wrote a great post on underappreciated marketing resources from Google, most of which can be applied to this market research phase. One of my favorites from that list is Google Trends. You can use it to look up the historical search volume estimates for different keywords, which gives you a much clearer picture on popularity than just doing research for a single point in time. Plus, it results in pretty graphs that you can use to get buy-in later on.
Find out what's trending socially: Mining data from social media is a great way to get a sense of what the interweb peoples find interesting. I really like this article from Marketing Sherpa via last year about how to mine Twitter for actionable data. What social platform is right for you to mine depends on your industry and where your customers hang out. Here is a list of 69 social media tools you can use for getting a better grasp on what goes over well socially.
The last, and I'd argue most important part of this research process is the customer research portion. I wrote an article on Search Engine Watch on ways to develop customer personas, and honestly, there are even more ways than that. This is one area of research that I encourage you to keep thinking about and keep evolving, because there's so many creative ways to do this. Here are some of the ideas and approaches I've been playing around with, some of which I've tried, others I haven't yet:
Surveys: You can send this both to your current customers and to non-customers using tools like Google Consumer Surveys. You can even survey users directly on your site using tools like Qualaroo.
Interviews and focus groups: Yes, this is probably one of my favorites because I've found it the most useful. More on this below.
Real-people studies: Okay, that's a really crappy group description, but essentially what I mean here is using available tools to allow non-customers to test out different portions of your site and give feedback. You can use things like Mechanical Turk, UserTesting.com, Feedback Army, and Crazy Egg.
Scrape live chat logs or talk to your customer service department. You can also scrape FAQs (or just research them if you don't have an expansive FAQ platform on your site).
Scrape forums or communities like Quora or LinkedIn groups to get a sense of what questions are being asked related to your product/services and/or industry.
Use big-data APIs to mine social insights from your users: I love this article about how to mine FullContact to get a better understanding of your customers.
Since our industry is made up of very technical people, I won't get into the nitty gritty of how to execute some of the more quantitative approaches above. What I will dive a bit deeper into is the qualitative approaches, such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
First, you need to know that usually you cannot directly ask the questions to get the information you really need to know about your customers. What you're really trying to figure out is the following:
What is their typical role(s) in the decision making process? (Initiator > influencer > decision maker > buyer > user > gatekeeper)
What does their typical purchasing journey looks like?
How much content, and what type, do they consume at different stages?
What factors drive their purchasing decisions?
Who influences their purchasing decisions?
What are their most common objections to the company and/or its product/services?
How quickly do they make decisions?
You can probably see why you can't ask these directlyâ€”the truth and what a customer will tell you are two different things! I find that survey questions vary widely depending on the industry, thus, I won't go into too much detail on the surveys but rather focus on the questions I like to ask during in-person interviews.
However, before I jump into this, I will say a few things about surveys. First, I use customer surveys as a way to source people for interviews. I typically give an incentive for filling out the survey (like being entered to win a $75 gift card). However, I'll also give a guaranteed incentive for those who volunteer to do an interview (saying things like "if you do an interview, I'll give you an automatic $25 gift card). I find this works like a charm, and is super valuable in being able to narrow down exactly who you interview.
This comes to my second point with interviews. You want to make sure you get the quantitative demographic information out of the way during the survey vs. during the interview. For B2B, you definitely want to ask job titles so that you can ensure you interview at least one person from each of the roles in the decision making process. You can also ask Net Promoter Score questions in surveys (i.e. "how likely are you to recommend us") to make sure you choose interviewees who both like and dislike your services. Remember, customer interviews aren't just a time to get all the good infoâ€”you want the bad just as much (if not more)!
Okay, back to interviews. Here are the questions I typically like to ask. Some are more appropriate for B2B than B2C, and vice versus, but hopefully this gives you some ideas of questions to ask during your next interview.
B2B Specific Interview Questions:
Describe your role.
How is your job measured?
What does a typical day look like?
What skills are required to do your job?
What knowledge and tools do you use in your job?
Who do you report to? Who reports to you? How much autonomy do you have in decision-making processes?
What are you responsible for?
What does it mean to be successful in your role?
What do you like best about your role?
What do you like least about your role?
What are your biggest challenges at work?
B2C or B2B Interview Questions:
Why did you seek an INSERT PRODUCT/SERVICE solution < best for recent customer
What were some key factors you looked at to evaluate the different solutions available? < again for recent customers
Do you use the internet to research vendors or products? If yes, how do you search for information?
Describe a recent purchase
Why did you consider a purchase?
What was the evaluation process?
How did you decide to purchase that product or service?
Who signed off the purchase?
What do you like best about INSERT COMPANY?
What do you like least?
What do you like to do in your spare time? < want to get places they hang out on the web, both social media platforms and specific sites they frequent
If you need more ideas, here are some more thanks to Content Marketing Institute.
Once you have all of these components together, that is when you can start identifying a content strategy. You want this content strategy to go after opportunities for growth (based off your benchmark audit), gaps in the market (what aren't your competitors doing that you can be?), and what your current or target customers want and need in order to make a purchasing decision. It's not until you have all these vital research components that you can eloquently develop a data-driven strategy to achieve some amazing content marketing success.
While there are many ways your content marketing initiatives can fail, many of these reasons stem from these three strategic biggies:
Confusing content marketing with link building, which affects the type of promotion you'll do and the effectiveness of each campaign.
Not aligning goals and tracking them correctly.
Not conducting enough research in order to develop a cohesive, effective strategy for your forthcoming content outputs.
Sort these three parts out, and it's likely that you'll start seeing results from your content marketing initiatives. And you know what that means? You'll then be able to use your results to tackle the more difficult content marketing woes, such as earning internal buy-in and changing your company culture into one that eats, sleeps, and breathes content.
I would love to hear in the comments what failures you've experienced during your various content marketing initiatives, and how you overcame them!
If you're curious, there were a ton of great presentation's at last week's Distilled SearchLove San Diego, and there's many more to come at the SearchLove London conference next month. If you're interested in seeing my full presentation, you can play it below.
Why Your Content Marketing Initiatives are Failing - Adria Saracino from Adria Saracino
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