September 5, 2020
👷♀️ Change Log
👋 Here’s a quick update on how we made Ercule service better in August 2020.
- 🚢 We shipped the first version of our Content Stack Audit. We’re super excited to have a publicly-available resource that anyone can use to audit their performance across the entire content stack.
- 🚢 Some useful additions to the content library this month, including “Building the idea-to-content pipeline” and “Speed is a feature”.
- 🗺 We spent a lot of time on roadmapping our services, including things we offer to people who aren’t clients yet. In particular, we’re starting to write code with a goal of launching an app that we think will be very helpful to content marketers in parsing Google Analytics.
- 🗺 Ercule clients know that we do care about backlinks, but we think about this in the context of a Link Distribution Strategy, of which backlinks are just one part. We’ve been developing the next version of our Link Distribution Strategy template, and are hoping to ship that soon.
September 3, 2020
Analytics are an important part of the content stack – understanding how your content is performing, and whether it’s driving revenue. So we often get asked to advise on, and sometimes help implement, basic marketing attribution.
(By the way, a word of encouragement if you are interested in this topic: Marketing attribution is a very hard problem, and we’re often surprised by how much improvement can be made even at fairly sophisticated organizations.)
This post is intended to show our recommended basic marketing attribution for B2B companies. Our approach is to focus on helping clients get this very simple approach working well – often that can be surprisingly difficult – before moving on to more complex models. It involves tracking 4 pieces of data for each lead and contact:
- The channel that first brought the lead to the site
- The campaign (generally equivalent to ‘form’ in this case) on which the first conversion happened
- The channel that most recently generated a conversion
- The campaign that most recently generated a conversion
We find that correctly tracking these pieces of data is enough to a fairly sophisticated view into what’s working and what isn’t, and getting the data into a marketing automation or CRM system is, by itself, enough to give a lot of flexibility in reporting. However, we generally recommend starting with first-touch attribution and influenced attribution only.
A key principle of any analytics system is for any particular measurement, categorization has to be “mutually exclusive, and collectively exhaustive”. That means that your categories cover every case, but also there’s no case that’s covered by more than one category.
For example, a common mistake we see is having a “Lead Source” field, and having a bunch of possible values including “Organic Search” and also “Webinar”. But if a lead came to your site via organic search and then joined a webinar, it’s impossible to know the correct category.
Here’s the categorization we generally start with for marketing channels (which we suggest storing in “Lead Source”):
- Organic Search
- Paid Search
- Organic Social
- Paid Social
- Inbound Link
- Content Syndication
Note that these are mutually exclusive; a lead can’t come from both Paid Social and an Event. In addition to these, we usually suggest 2 more. “Marketing Other” is a catchall for other sources that don’t fit in this list and don’t need to be broken out yet. “Marketing Unknown” is for direct traffic, where we might know they came from the web, but we don’t know how they found us on the web.
An easy way to think about marketing campaigns in this system is that they line up with Salesforce campaigns. A campaign is really any conversion point that we can see and log.
Putting them together
Together, measuring marketing channels and marketing campaigns gives you a high-quality picture of lead attribution without being too difficult to set up or understand.
- A lead might get into your system by following a social ad promoting a whitepaper – then their Lead Source (in Salesforce, say, or in Marketo) is Paid Social and their campaign is the whitepaper campaign. Or a lead might search for a keyword and see an article by you in the search results, which will make their Lead Source equal to Organic Search.
- Then later, when they come back and sign up for a webinar, that becomes their first campaign.
Marketing attribution is difficult, and most of the complex systems that marketers want to use require discipline and attention that aren’t realistic to expect. Capturing a small set of simple data – while it still requires a lot of work to ensure consistency and analyze – can help provide a rigorous picture of what’s working and what isn’t in your marketing.
August 29, 2020
We’re excited to announce that we’ve shipped our Content Stack Audit.
We’ll continue to update this audit as website best practices develop, but for now we’ve cataloged over 100 items in 9 categories - including content, site speed, usability, analytics, and more – that we think you should pay attention to to build your optimal content engine.
Future plans include explaining how important each item is, and adding more detailed posts around specific items to help give context for why these items are important, and how to think about them.
August 18, 2020
A few statistics on things we know about the influence of speed on concrete things like traffic, conversions, and revenue:
- The BBC found they lost 10% of users for every additional second their site took to load
- 100ms is the threshold for an action to be considered instant, and after 1 second, the user’s train of thought is interrupted
- Bounce probability increases 32% as time to load increases from 1 second to 3 seconds
(Amazingly, having a speedy website is also still a significant differentiator. Website speed still hasn’t improved, despite 7-fold increases in internet speed.)
Most audits focus on the technical aspects of improving site speed, but we think there are actually 3 different things to look at. How long does it take a visitor:
- To be able to start reading?
- To be able to interact?
- To find what they’re looking for on your site?
All of these need to be optimized if you want to make your site as useful as possible. (Google has an excellent set of measurements called Core Web Vitals that break the first two bullets down into specific, numerical measurements.)
There are a lot of things you can do to improve your site speed, but we suggest being strategic in every case.
If you suspect you have speed issues with your site (and even if you don’t), the first step is to audit your site. Google’s audit tool is useful, though Google’s tools tend to be quite harsh in their assessments, as Google is incentivized to improve the quality of its search results as much as possible, sometimes at the expense of publishers. Ercule also publishes a content stack audit with the things we think are really important to fix (we categorize speed-related items under “Usability”).
Technical audits invariably surface hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of issues with a site. Each one is not equally important, and we think that 20% of items can usually cover much of the improvement you’ll see.
The most important items are around site speed – if you can easily improve this – and usability.
A few measurements in these audits do cover usability, but in addition to the factors that a machine can assess, we also recommend doing user testing if at all possible to hear what’s going through visitors’ minds when they interact with your site. Here’s an example user test plan that you can use with a service like UserTesting.com.
Lastly, make sure it’s easy for your users to find the information they’re looking for. Making your website easy and clear to use and consume results in significant improvements in perceived speed, and delivers benefits for rankings, traffic, and conversions.
Choosing the right CMS and configuring your site correctly
A major cause of slow sites is having a slow or misconfigured CMS.
While static site generators are usually the fastest, pretty much any CMS can be fast if it’s properly configured. Some of this will show up in a technical audit, but make sure that caching is enabled, assets are served via a CDN, and other technical basics like minification are enabled. If you have lots of large images and other assets, see if you can reduce their size.
Loading fewer widgets
Speed matters, and not just in terms of load time. Think about your users: what do they need right away from your site? They need to see it, to explore it, and to find what they’re looking for. Optimizing for user-oriented metrics will win you more conversions. Technical audits are an essential part of the process, but UX design is crucial too.
August 15, 2020
There are lots of articles about how to come up with content ideas – and finding ideas is an important step to creating content.
But once you have ideas, you also need to figure out how to turn them into structured, useful articles that your customers and prospects can consume. That’s difficult, and it’s where intentionally creating, and streamlining, an idea-to-content pipeline can help.
Narrowing down your ideas
Let’s say you’ve come up with a list of 20 ideas for your next article. There are a few ways that we typically suggest narrowing down this list to just a few that make sense to produce, and that can be produced relatively quickly. Consider:
- Is there demand for your content? Articles that are getting traction on social, active questions from customers or prospects, and keyword data can all be clues that a piece of content is worth creating.
- Is there lots of competition? We usually make this assessment by looking at the domain authority of competitors who are ranking for the topic we’re writing about, since that’s easy to measure and understand.
- Is it something you can easily produce? This is an important, but often overlooked part of the idea-to-content pipeline. Even if a content idea is high volume and low competition, if it takes a lot of effort to produce, you may not want to assign as high a priority to it. Clues to whether something is easy to produce include the technical depth of the topic, and the availability of subject matter experts to help you get the ideas down and checked for accuracy. For example, if there’s an expert at your company who can get the main ideas down on paper in a half hour session, that’s much easier than if important bits of knowledge are spread out among 2 or 3 people.
- How easy is it to maintain? On one extreme, you could produce a complex article that is closely tied to a specific moment in time or event, and contains lots of very specific technical details. That might make sense if you know it will easily get widespread distribution. On the other hand, you could produce something that’s useful but straightforward to keep updated, like a resource guide, and that will be useful for a long time. Things that are easier to maintain are, on balance, probably more worthwhile to build.
Outlining for content marketing
Outlines govern the structure of your content, and our experience suggests that the outline – even more so than the actual content – is a major determiner of the success of a piece of content. To make things easier and more process-oriented, outlines can be structured and populated using data.
For example, when we write an outline on a particular topic, let’s say “carburetor repair”, we’ll use Google’s search suggestions, or other topics we want to write about, or what’s popular on social for a specific hashtag (#carburetors) as suggestions for sections to write.
Knowing what type of content you’re creating (blog, explainer, deep dive) will provide other structural signposts. An explainer outline, for example, will always include some basic contextual sections, while a blog might be a little more idiosyncratic.
For each of these sections, we’ll then populate as much as we can using existing content – whether that’s our own or content that’s already available. Places to borrow from include:
- Content that’s already popular on this topic, whether you or someone else produced it
- Content that is related, even if it doesn’t cover the topic exactly
- Transcripts of webinars, product marketing materials, and demos
- Notes from interviews with subject matter experts or users
The key is to get to a high-quality, data-driven draft put together as quickly as possible.
Outlining in this way also helps with repurposing. If you think about your content library as a product, can you take other pieces of the product and combine them into something new? For example, if you are writing an article on “cutlery management” for your restaurant clients, can you insert existing content about “bamboo vs. plastic”?
Distribution strategy, and publishing
Even before content is published, distribution strategy is critical for making it successful. Key pieces of distribution strategy include:
- Picking a title that accurately represents what the content is about, but isn’t unnecessarily boring
- Writing metadata, like descriptions for Google SERPs and social shares and figuring out which hashtags to use
- Writing promotional copy, including several different formats of social share. For example, you might want to have “Q&A-style” social copy for several sections of your content, as well as more matter-of-fact copy describing what’s in it or its boldest claims. Each of these pieces of promotional copy is a way of positioning the content to your audience.
- Finding the content’s audience. Early in the process you probably identified content as being targeted toward people in a certain stage of the buying funnel, or toward a certain job title or role. But the next step is to figure out where these people are (Slack groups? Publications? Newsletters?) and get pointers to your content from there. This can also include finding backlink opportunities and sending a quick note to point a web property manager to your content. It can even include identifying prospects or sales reps who might want to know about what you’ve written.
From topic selection to content production to distribution, you have an opportunity to optimize each step of content creation. Choose subjects that will allow your work to stand out in search results. Outline every piece before you begin writing in order to build substantial content in an efficient way. Fine-tune the details and metadata of your work with an eye toward your broadest potential audience.
Without a workflow system in place, businesses can waste untold hours producing content that hardly makes an impression beyond your office. An idea-to-content pipeline can be engineered to fit your daily business routine, so content creation is always moving forward.
August 13, 2020
Often, in SEO, we make the mistake of assuming that Google wants to drive users to our content. We wish this were true, but it isn’t.
Search for any topic, and you’ll consistently see fewer links to publisher sites than you did a few years ago. Instead, more and more of what you see is:
Content scraped directly from websites and presented by Google, including instant answers and knowledge panels
Links to other Google properties
SparkToro has some great stats on this. To summarize briefly, their data shows that no-click searches increased from 56% to 62% of all searches from 2016 to 2018.
And according to Bloomberg, “[In 2019], the Search business alone brought in almost $100 billion in sales. Much of that growth has come from adding more ads.”
What do we think this means for SEO? There are a few predictions we can confidently make:
- Organic search will remain important for a long time.
- Zero-click results will become more important, too. This means it’s important to have well-structured websites, together with schema markup, that Google can read.
- Ads are going to become more competitive and take up more space on the front page. This means that clicks from paid ads are going to become more expensive.
It also means:
- Content marketers need to think beyond SEO and to holistic link distribution strategies. That way, as organic does become more competitive, their content is already distributed among other channels.
- Content marketers need to own their own audience, not Google. That means audience building is important. That means conversions from the traffic you do get, and high-quality branded content creation so that organic search becomes a way of increasing brand exposure. It also means you should focus on keywords Google is less likely to cannibalize.
- Content marketers need to focus on improving their content marketing machinery, which is effective across all content.
Google is an extremely useful tool for business, but it has a vested interest in steering people toward Google properties and the sites of people who pay Google money (a.k.a. advertisers). Keep using Google for its perks, but don’t rely on a search engine to grow your business for you.
Work on building your own audience independent of search results. Capture their attention with a steady stream of quality content. Optimize your website for the strongest possible showing in organic search results, which will keep you toward the top of a SERP (without ever paying for ads).
August 11, 2020
We’ve already covered useful questions for customer interviews. But how can you get insight on your content, and your site, from people who you don’t know yet? We really like services like UserTesting.com for this, and in this article we’ll suggest some questions you can ask during a user test to get useful feedback on what you’re doing.
By the way, this article covers a specific type of user test – a remote, moderated test. This type of test is conducted by the subject, using a list of questions you provide. Because you won’t be there to ask questions when conducting this type of test, it’s critical that the subject be encouraged to talk through why they are behaving in certain ways, and how they are thinking about their interactions with you.
Be sure to screen out testers who aren’t in, or related to, your target market. If you provide an accounting solution for small businesses, for example – you might want to select for people with some familiarity with competing products, or who have job functions that are related to accounting.
The 5 second test
In the 5 second test, you want to show users your site – most likely, your homepage – for just 5 seconds and see if they can understand what you’re about. This is a great test to see if you have a clear value proposition that people who don’t know who you are, can understand. Once users have had 5 seconds to look, specific questions you can ask include:
- What do you remember? This is helpful for understanding if your value proposition is clear – and also for understanding if there are distracting (or particularly memorable) elements on your site.
- Who’s this site for? A good test for seeing if the target persona is easily detectable. This is a question your visitors will typically ask themselves when they land on your site – and if the site isn’t for them, they will leave more quickly.
Home page exploration
Ask your user to take 30 seconds to get acquainted with the homepage. This attempts to simulate the experience a user will have if they become seriously interested in your product. Good questions to ask here include:
- Without leaving the homepage, what are your initial impressions of the website? Explain your answer. This is a good way to assess a visitor’s initial level of trust in your website, when they arrive. Asking a visitor the reason for their impression is helpful, too – since the answer may point to specific issues you can fix.
- Please describe what our product does. This helps you figure out whether your value proposition is easy to find, and if so, whether it’s easy to understand.
And you don’t have to be fancy to be clear.
The buyer journey on a B2B website is extremely complex. Your visitor is probably on your site to research your solution, and may also have the goal of being able to bring information back to the rest of their team. So, ask your users to accomplish information-gathering tasks that you commonly expect users to accomplish on your site. For example:
- Determine whether our product supports Linux.
- Get information about the ROI of our product.
- Find information about how to most efficiently deploy a new bid management system.
- Tell us how you would contact our sales team.
- Explain how we compare with Competitor X.
Be sure to have users talk you through what they are doing, and why they’re doing it. “I’m going to click on ‘Resource Library’ because I think that’s where you keep whitepapers on this topic.”
Test your competitors’ sites
Lastly, consider running user tests against your competitors’ sites, too, to see where they’ve done a better job of helping visitors get the information they need. Whoever provides information is likely to be able to frame the conversation.
User testing is a relatively inexpensive way of seeing problems on your site that you don’t notice. And they can be a great way of convincing others on your team to take action – once you’ve conducted 5 - 7 tests, send out a highlight reel so everyone can see how real users interact with the content you’ve created.