I’ve been around the organic search sector data for nearly a decade. I’ve spoken to agencies and clients extensively about both their marketing objectives and, behind closed doors or in a bar, their frustrations.
The issues with their content marketing performance nearly always seemed to come down to two things: data and people. Money was rarely an issue. Which got me thinking: What are the top 10 reasons that stop companies publishing market winning content?
This was my list of reasons, and to see if I was right I checked in with some of the talent that’s doing great work in digital marketing for a second opinion.
This is what we came up with.
Your plan talks about content strategy, content marketing channels, landing pages, social newsrooms and lots of other flavors of the content lexicon. What’s not in there is a stated requirement or expectation that you should have published the high-value content that satisfies what searchers are looking for and the quality of that content should brilliantly answer the queries.
This could be backed up with an objective. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that a well-funded business should target:
Within 12 months:
- 90% or more of landing pages that have value of over 1,000 visits a month, and should be revisited.
- 50% or more of landing pages are considered to be equal or better than other pages designed to answer the same query.
I think you could set the bar higher, but the above would be a great place to start.
James Skinner, Head of Digital IT at Dyson Ltd, a British technology company, thinks strategy is “absolutely the most important thing” but that it’s overlooked in many businesses.
“One of the challenges we face is that we have a two core purposes for our content – drive conversion, and explain the technology,” he says. “The reasons for the latter are that (a) it helps to justify the price point and (b) we are really genuinely rather keen for people to get as excited about the technology as we do.”
Skinner explains that at Dyson they prioritize technology content and make it less about the conversion. “This conflicts somewhat with our stated goal of selling more, direct, via digital. For us, there would need to be a qual measure as well as quant. It’s also unclear how well this priority supports surfacing what users search for.”
Skinner also suggests that:
- 100% of ‘dead’ pages (i.e. those with <x page views) should be removed from the site to reduce maintenance workload (and possible SEO penalty for poor content)
- A “conversion target” of x% is applied to focus attention on driving visitors to specific CTAs within landing (or other) pages
Mark House is the Programme Manager at Bibby Financial Services, a multinational corporation which provides financial services to SMBs, believes it is imperative to have clear objectives. “I love the idea of making sure that the content has a target and that it is exceeded,” he says. “It helps to create more focus on the page and to deliver quality to both a search engine and the end user who might find that content useful. It also drives research better – if you are targeted at getting X visits or activities then the research around end-user needs and keywords will be more complete.”
House also reminds us that search is all about the consumer. “It has to meet their demands, and in this age we know more and more about what they do and don’t like – make sure you include this in your research and targeting, and you will be on the right track.”
Stephen Morris SEO and Content Specialist at TSB argues that the key to successful content strategy is that ability to “cut through noise” and “produce content that is both visible to – and resonates with – your audience”.
As he so eloquently surmises: “The internet is awash with naff content. Without setting and tracking targets, you could just be adding more layers of fog.”
We all put things off that we should be doing in favor of what we think is an easier way to spend our time. And let’s face it, planning takes time and can be pretty technical if you are up for getting knee-deep in data.
Auditing what you have and what’s missing, then planning to fill the gaps is necessary, but can be put off. Having missing content is not OK, but having “OK” and not “great” content is not OK either. Are there really more important things to be doing than creating truly great content?
If you’re not going to get it done by yourself, get some help.
Skinner adds that there’s also a risk that: ”By putting off a proper audit today, the amount of issues and workload that an audit tomorrow will find grows continually until the whole thing turns from regular, affordable review and maintenance into a giant, expensive project.”
House agrees that it’s about grabbing the bull by the horns. “Just like the targeting, eating the elephant in smaller parts really helps to deliver – many businesses operate on ‘I want XX customers’ and translate that to smaller funnel targets, but breaking it down to this level means you can really start to nail down your goals.”
Morris has a more pragmatic approach and reminds us that, although there are never enough hours in the day, there is always support available if you have a bit of budget or buy-in from other functions. “If you’re new to a role or company, an audit is vital to understand what content you have and how it’s performing before you can start looking for gaps. Not only will it save time, but it may also be political to have it done externally in order to get an independent view,” he says.
Brands are precious things. We want to build our own and disrupt others. To help, we appoint teams that create and police guidelines. These guidelines include graphical instructions as well as guidance on things like tone of voice and language use.
Because of this, brand agencies are often the authors of web pages and their best copywriters craft copy them to briefs that are agonized over. When published, they are exactly what the agency and brand wanted to say. So what’s the issue? It’s just that all too often they don’t reflect what searchers wanted to find, they are not optimized for search and not designed to compete on Google. Which doesn’t stop CMO expecting them to compete, of course!
This disconnect can cost traffic at the very least, but I’d also argue brand equity, too. I say this as I suspect that consumers are more about depth and detail, and less about the art of persuasive ad copy than ever before.
Skinner explains that this topic inks very strongly with strategy. “First and foremost the brand has to decide whether their content exists to serve the brand or the consumer,” he says. “Sounds like an obvious answer – clearly we would write to reflect what the consumer is searching for. But is every brand genuinely consumer-centric or user focussed?
House is also all too aware of the powerful influence a brand’s legacy can have over its content but breaks it down to its core to remind us that, “brands are made up of the customers that use, or want to use any companies products or services.” And it doesn’t stop there. “Worse, customers now expect that, not only will the product or service meet their needs, but the experience around it will be awesome too. That means that top quality content that offers customers what they are looking for is just as important as the product or service itself,” he says.
But whilst so many of us are fixated on the future, Morris encourages us to look to the past. “That Venn diagram that we’re all so fond of, that shows the intersection between what brands want to say and what (potential) customers want to know, is still appropriate to wheel out some days.”
He believes that although it’s important to understand how a brand speaks and presents things, it’s also important to think about what the target audience is searching for, “so that you can legitimately have an opinion on and create the brand’s answer.”
The bigger the company the more red tape there is. How many people are going to be involved in the briefing, sign-off, and publishing? How many opinions are going to be voiced and listened to?
The more there are, the slower it goes and content by committee can often turn out to be little more than average.
In Skinner’s world, perhaps too familiarly, there is often tension “between ‘group’ and ‘markets’, with a strong desire from group to maintain control over messaging, tone and so forth.”
Skinner combats this in a number of ways. “A relatively strict workflow has to be enforced,” he says, “but the aim is for it to be as lightweight as possible whilst maintaining sufficient control.”
But this can often be difficult to replicate when working in multiple markets.“What mustn’t be overlooked is the local knowledge factor,” assures Skinner. “A good example for us is related to the specific cultural differences in China and Japan that mean our ‘standard’ content isn’t really what they are looking for.”
House has also experienced difficulties in this area and has studied disruption in larger firms extensively. “For sure they are slower to move because the decision-making process is well known (to competitors) and highly collegiate,” he says. He also suggests that it’s important to keep an eye on their competition and to learn from their success. “When offering advice to some of these larger firms, who are often concerned about the newer entrants in their marketplace, my advice is to follow those things that these entrants do well. One of them is the ability to look at data and to get things out there – these entrants use people who are good at what they do and they empower and trust their ability to get the job done. Big organizations can learn a lot from that.”
Taking a slightly different approach, Morris suggests that the answer lies in preparation. “If you’re in a big organization, you need to create frameworks,” he says. “Get people to approve them and understand that you’re not going to ask them to sign off on everything after that.”
It might sound overly idealistic, but it’s difficult to disagree with his underlying belief that, “If you have an agreed tone of voice and framework of what you’re covering and when, does Marketing really need to approve every blog post?”
Conversion Rate Optimisation makes companies a lot of money. Getting people to click the big green button with as few distractions as possible comes at a price. Great main and supplementary content. There needs to be a balance with no harmful compromise. Everyone needs to win this battle.
“This comes back to delivering what the customer wants to get the action that the business needs,” says Mark House. “It is genuinely a science and in almost all instances experts are better placed to deliver the goals that every customer and business wants.”
Knowing what content is needed in your market is not rocket science, but data-driven content planning is a must.
I’m not anti white-board, but brainstorming, guessing or assuming what your website’s most valuable content should be is not a great starting place.
“This is a definite high priority area for my money,” reveals Skinner.
Two sins Skinner has seen many times:
- No data on which to base decisions
- Ignoring data when making decisions
“A/B testing is another area I think is important and typically it gets focussed on swapping out functionality and/or visuals, button colors and so forth, rather than testing different content approaches,” he says.
But it’s one thing coming up with content ideas and another proving that they’re actually valuable. “One of the things we used to do back in the day at Sift that a lot of clients got a lot of value from was deep investigation, typically by interview, of all the potential sources of content (most of which were previously not considered) within an organization,” says Skinner. “But it was still rather theoretical – just because we found it, doesn’t mean anyone wanted to consume it. Newer technology means test and iterate becomes much easier, including around content.”
House has a similar belief, explaining that, “Ideas have to be founded on real information that is up to date and genuinely reflects what your customers want. So many times, decisions and ideas are based upon what it is believed they want (or in fact what anyone in the room would want), and that is not the path to awesome achievements.”
Ultimately, House believes that, “A sole and total focus on your customers and your goals is the only way to go”.
For Morris it’s an outdated issue, insisting that all successful producers of content are using data. “Just take a look at the newspaper sites with content written blatantly chasing search volumes,” he says.
For some companies, budgets are an issue but money is not. What I mean is, there’s budget for paid search, display ads, retargeting, social media, agencies and more. Only a fraction of any one of these is needed to drive up the execution quality of the website’s content and ROI. Yet the money is not spent. Weird.
“How much of this is because of the lack of sophistication in measuring ROI on better content?” asks Skinner. “There’s an upward education challenge because often there’s much more familiarity with the list of things above (paid search et al) and hence more propensity to spend money on it, but less recognition of what content actually is and what it can do.”
House argues that it’s often a case of ‘doing’ just to be seen ‘doing’. “In so many cases, spending money is often just to be able to say ‘I do this’ whenever there are questions about a business’ approach to delivering marketing,” he ponders. “It is a sweeping generalization, yet a more critical assessment of what your customers want, what the business needs and what activities would deliver these at the lowest cost and highest return are surely the best way forward. This is how smaller firms or new market entrants operate and is something that larger firms really ought to take notice of.”
But is this a new issue? Morris argues not. “I’m not sure whether it’s about content or just spending money on something ‘new’. We’ve had the same debates around SEO and social media spending over the years. Those holding the purse-strings need to understand the value and then commit to it, but there will be pressure from other areas for that same budget,” he says.
There is a pool of skills that we need to make this all work and a team to buy-in to what you want to do.
- Data munchers who find the gaps and opportunities.
- Brief writers that make sure what the writers get is going to result in amazing content coming back.
- Those that work on and around the CMS: Developers, design, SEO, CRO or sometimes one or a few multi-skilled individuals.
- Leadership talent, who can champion the idea of what is needed, and of course get it done, removing barriers if they get in the way.
“Crucially, everyone has to work as a joined up team,” says Skinner. “The barrier is often lack of consensus, mutual objectives, and mutual understanding of the benefits. That’s not a challenge unique to content, it’s a wider digital challenge.”
But genuine talent is hard to find, argues House. “They don’t advertise. They don’t need to. The world is full of people who can write, can deliver search, and so much more.”
And as many of us are becoming increasingly aware, talent is harnessable in a number of ways. As House suggests, “For many, it is easier to just outsource and challenge and make sure that the firms or people you use are more talented than you have the ability to directly acquire”.
Interestingly, Morris approaches the issue from quite a different perspective, suggesting that, “The skills to deliver this stuff exists in many companies, but having leaders that can unlock closed doors and get access to expertise that may sit outside the immediate team is key”.
Indeed, no matter how much talent you currently have, progress will always require new skills and experience.
Different to procrastination, this is about timing. If the number one project in the business is another project and that’s taking 100% of resource, other things, however necessary and desired, can sometimes take priority. So what should always be a top priority becomes a mid-tier to-do.
Echoing my thoughts, Skinner says he’s found that, “Only senior buy-in will force the prioritization and probably the ROI question is the only part that will unlock resources.”
“Timing is everything,” House agrees. “This is the one area that is all about the data and the business. The customer need is also highly important, but if you are debating timing, you’re probably aware of this. If you’re not debating timing, you’re probably not quite there with the customer need.”
Morris, however, suggests that it’s not always so black and white. “Resources always shift with business priorities. So you could find your editorial team becoming copywriters feeding into projects, with multiple stand-ups and dial-ins and minimal time to deliver a content strategy.
There’s a lot of very average content out there that’s published by companies that should know better. Behind this is often a perception that, if it ain’t broke, it don’t need fixing. My opinion is that given the potential ROI of the fix, the CFO might have a different view.
Skinner believes there’s a general need for digital education in what might be termed “traditional” businesses. “Even as little as 5 years ago, our web ambition was not much more than having a decent online brochure. We’re investing huge sums in transforming our digital capability, and part of that is educating the senior team in the art of the possible.
House argues that money, or at least how it is perceived and invested by every member of a company’s team, is pertinent to doing modern business. “I have always treated business money as my own, judging decisions on whether I would spend it myself. Sometimes I have underinvested, and I have learnt from that, but mostly I cannot stand the ‘we have to do this because we always have’ or ‘why don’t we give this a few more months’ approach. These are both statements of fear, and fear is always near to the unknown. If you don’t understand why you are doing something, make it your business to find out. Really understand what adds value and make sure you only ever do those things,” he expands.
Morris is equally unimpressed. “I am always stunned when big brands with loads of money seem happy to publish bland ‘me-too’ content. Is a sanitized ‘guide to car insurance’ really the best an insurer with a multimillion brand budget can offer? Is there not something they stand for or have an opinion on that would say more about the company and the expertise within?”