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Website content optimization: Page metrics

January 24, 2021
📓 Article

Which of your pages are performing at full potential?

We already looked at traffic data to see how pages are performing in search – but the end goal is to win with real, live human beings.

So, how do people respond to each page? Are they in love with it? Are they running away as soon as they arrive?

In other words, how is the User Experience (UX)? Let’s look at some metrics that speak to what users are actually doing with pages on your site.

When we understand how users interact with a page, we can start optimizing for their engagement. Start by looking at two key metrics in Google Analytics:

  • Average Time on Page
  • Bounce Rate

The two go hand-in-hand. Combined, they give a sense of how users are judging the quality and relevance of your pages.

(Google search crawlers use these metrics when ranking pages, too.)

Average Time On Page

This measures exactly what you think it does: how long each visitor is spending on this page.

Optimized-Content-TimeOnPage.png

Why do we chart this metric?

It guides our UX optimization. Do people find this page engaging? Well, if they only spend 1.33 seconds on the page, then the answer is probably No.

Note: if you have a really small data set (i.e. not many page visits) then the Average Time on Page data can be misleading. If you only had four users last month, one outlier can warp the overall metrics. But if you had 40,000 users then one outlier won’t have a huge effect.

What are we looking for?

There is no universal target range here, but the higher the better. One minute or higher is a healthy sign – still, there’s room for improvement. Anything over 10 minutes probably indicates a data or optimization error.

What does it tell us for optimization?

If the time on page metric is around 30 seconds or less, then people probably aren’t finding what they’re looking for on this page.

All content, no matter how old or poorly performing, has potential to be revised or repurposed and become active again. A page with low time metrics might be improved a number of ways, such as…

  • Revising the page layout
  • Simplifying the nav bar
  • Breaking up text on the page to make it more readable
  • Adding visuals

Bounce Rate

Bounce rate shows us how frequently visitors leave a page without ever engaging with it.

Optimized-Content-BounceRate.png

Why do we chart this metric?

As with the Time on Page data, we use bounce rate to gauge UX performance and user intent. Are people finding what they were looking for when they typed the search terms into Google? Or are they going back to Google because your page didn’t answer their question?

What are we looking for?

The lowest percentage possible. It’s all relative, again, but a bounce rate of 50-80% is generally okay. It’s extremely rare to see anything under 20% (and anything under 10% is almost certainly an error).

What does it tell us for optimization?

A high bounce rate tells us that people aren’t finding what they’re looking for on this page. This could point to a few common issues:

  • The content might be mismatched with the search terms.
    For example: Users are searching the term ‘apple pie recipe’ and your page is a history of the apple pie recipe tradition in North America.
    Solution: Put a link on the page that will bring users to a more relevant piece on your site (ie. an actual apple pie recipe). Make sure the link is easy for visitors to notice.

  • The content might be relevant, but the presentation is off.
    For example (continuing with our apple pie recipe search): You’ve got an apple pie recipe on the page but it’s at the very bottom, and the title of the page is ‘A Story About My Mom’s Famous Apple Pie’.
    Solution: Rewrite the copy and title so that visitors know that the recipe they’re looking for is here. Consider moving the recipe itself to the top of the page.

Bounce rate and time on page are imperfect metrics

Both metrics has its own quirks – at least in the way that Google charts them. It’s good to take these quirks into consideration. (Google is the product of mortal, fallible humans after all.)

Average Time on Page: Google won’t chart every visit

Google can track the time for all visitors except those who bounce. It’s a quirk of their method: they can only track someone’s time on page if they visit two or more pages on your site.

So, if your bounce rate is 60%, that means that Google is only providing Time on Page data for 40% of that page’s visitors. It’s still a useful metric, but not exactly ideal data analysis.

Bounce rate: ‘engagement’ is an imprecise notion

Bounce rate is tracking the rate of engagement on a page – but what does that mean, exactly?

The most basic answer is: clicking on stuff. If you want to track meaningful engagement, you’ll need to define the type of ‘stuff’ that you want people to click and use.

Google has its own one-size-fits all definitions… and it sporadically revises criteria for an engagement ‘event.’

For example: If a chat screen pops up and a user clicks to minimize it, Google might classify that as an event. If a user clicks ‘Play’ on a video player – that often constitutes an event, even if they leave your site entirely, two seconds later.

What do you consider engagement for your own site? Probably something a little more substantial – like actually chatting in a chat window, or clicking on a Free Trial button or browsing other pages.

The good news: you can tailor the way that bounce rate is counted within Google Analytics. It will give you an option to classify less desirable clicks as non-interactive events.

Conclusion

To start getting a sense for page performance, chart its bounce rate and average time on page. Average Time on Page tells you how long a page keeps people’s attention. Bounce rate tells you how often visitors land on your website and realize that it’s not a good fit for them.

Together, these metrics can give you sense for the overall strength of a page’s User Experience. Tracking it for all of your pages will allow you to see which ones need the most revision. With these insights in mind, you can begin revising the elements of a page as needed.

Optimizing for time on page might be as simple as adding more subheads to a blog post, or as fundamental as adjusting the site’s nav bar. Optimizing for bounce rate might be a matter of adding useful links to the top of a page, or rewriting a post entirely.

By tracking these metrics for all pages on a regular basis, you’re treating your website as a dynamic point of customer engagement. Because, ideally, that’s what it is.

When you’re ready to get more mileage out of your existing content, you can always run ideas by the Ercule crew.

Website content optimization: Traffic metrics

January 20, 2021
📓 Article

In order to optimize a page for search, you need to know how it’s performing right now.

So you log in to Google Analytics and see all these charts and data fields. And maybe your eyes gloss over a little bit. (I’m writing from personal experience.)

There is a wealth of data for you on Google Analytics, but you only need a few key metrics in order to start optimizing your page.

In this blog we’ll look at search performance through the lens of traffic.

This blog will look at two pieces of data:

  • Organic Entrances
  • Total Pageviews

All you need to do this work is the Google Analytics login for your website.

Once you understand how each page is performing, you’ll know which ones need revision. (After you optimize the basics for each page, of course.)

Organic Entrances vs. Total Pageviews

These are two of the most basic metrics you can find in Google Analytics, but together they provide a lot of actionable insight.

Optimized-Content-OrganicEntrances.png

The organic entrance metric shows us how many users are finding your site through organic search. This is, of course, what we’re trying to influence with keyword strategy.

Total pageview metric refers to all users, coming from absolutely anywhere – referrals, internal links, ads, and also organic.

Why do we chart these metrics?

We want to see which pages are performing well in organic, and which ones could use some revisions to perform better.

By looking at the ratio of organic entrances to total pageviews, we get a snapshot for each page. Different scenarios include:

  • High ratio of organic to total pageviews
    Congrats! People are frequently finding this page through organic search.
  • A promising ratio of organic entrances to the total
    The page is decently aligned with keywords. Still, there’s room for improvement.
  • Relatively low ratio of organic to total pageviews
    This page needs help.
  • Extremely low ratio of organic
    This page might never perform well in organic, and that’s fine. Some pages will always be found through internal links on your site. The Pricing page is a great example.

What are we looking for?

There’s no universal target for these metrics. The goal is for a high ratio of organic entrances, but it’s all relative.

Your start-up company’s goal for organic performance is going to be different from an established company like Snowflake because your starting metrics are different from theirs.

What does it tell us for web content optimization?

The ratio of organic to total pageviews will tell us how much a page to revise. Here are some broad guidelines.

  • High ratio of organic to total pageviews
    Be cautious about making big changes. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)
  • Relatively high rate of organic entrances to total pageviews
    The page is on the right track, so you might consider optimizing minor aspects of the page – elements like subhead language, page speed, or visual flow.
  • Relatively low rate of organic to total
    Consider optimizing all aspects of the page, from the UX basics to the copywriting.
  • Extremely low rate of organic to total
    Review the function of the page to see if there is actually any organic potential. There might not be, as in the case of Pricing pages. (People don’t really use Google to find your Pricing page, they find it through other pages on your site.) For a page like that, optimizing for organic might be a waste of time.

Conclusion

By comparing organic entrances against total pageviews, you’ll get a sense of how much organic traffic a page is actually seeing.

When you identify pages that need revision – and which ones will benefit the most from it – you can start optimizing pages. There’s almost always room for improvement for any page, but the amount that you’re willing to revise should be determined by what you find in these metrics.

Consider these metrics as a starting point for more data-driven content strategy. You might also study up on different traffic data in Google Analytics data.

And if you’re curious about the full potential for content performance, feel free to schedule a chat with us.

How to pick seed keywords

January 5, 2021
📓 Article

Seed keywords are critical for building an organic search strategy. But it’s important to pick the right seed keywords; otherwise you end up spending much more time on keyword research than you need to.

Good sources for seed keywords

Your site, particularly on your product and solutions pages, and in your marketing materials. Don’t just look in front page copy – blog posts can be helpful, too, and so can testimonials and landing pages.

For example, Dropbox’s site for Dropbox Business uses a bunch of important phrases in its value pillars. Dropbox’s reach is sufficiently broad that something like “team collaboration” may make sense for them to target.

seed-keywords-dropbox.png

Vidyard’s site also includes some useful language in its value pillars. Some of the pillars are too broadly written for a topic strategy, most likely. (This can also be an opportunity to use topic strategy as a way to drive clearer product messaging – what if all of these value pillars contained helpful topics?)

seed-keywords-vidyard.png

Here’s a testimonial from Zoey’s site that has a helpful phrase in it.

zoey-seed-keywords.png

Landing pages, especially those that describe an asset, can be helpful, too. Here’s a Zylo landing page with a ton of helpful phrases on it. The PDF itself is a longer read, but likely to have lots more.

zylo-landing-page-seed-keywords.png

Competitors’ sites are also an important place to look. Braze’s library page has some great topic candidates, and there are additional ones on the front page of a competitor’s site.

braze-seed-keywords-competitors.png

Other important sources include:

  • Sales calls. Use a tool like Gong to check out transcripts and important topics that you can potentially use in your content creation.
  • Everyone else in marketing, particularly product marketing.
  • Customer success and services. You can get lots of value from a good relationship with these teams.
  • Sales enablement and sales, particularly development reps. Check out their call scripts for phrases that are resonating.

Put these in a spreadsheet, ideally something in the cloud so you can very easily collaborate on it.

Picking the right keywords

It’s important not to pick keywords that are too narrow, or too broad. There isn’t a hard and fast rule for this, but in the end, you’re going to focus on 3 - 5 topics at a time.

Can you realistically see your choices occupying one of those slots? Do you think that each of your seed keywords could potentially be a blog topic? If not, probably too narrow. Will people who use your keyword to search be likely to convert once they land on your site? If not, probably too broad.

Let’s imagine you run a company that sells software to help companies assess their customer satisfaction.

  • We would probably include “customer satisfaction measurement” or “survey software”.
  • We probably would not include “how sales reps should use customer satisfaction measurement software”, because it’s too narrow and unlikely to be a blog topic.
  • But “customer satisfaction” is likely too broad. There are lots of reasons that people would be looking for this term that have nothing to do with what we sell.

Head keywords vs. long-tail

Long tail keywords are keyword phrases that are complex and relatively long – for example, “how to measure customer satisfaction for automotive companies” – that also have low volume but very high propensity to convert. Pursuing long-tail keywords can be extremely helpful, particularly for direct-to-consumer companies.

If you go after long-tail keywords, generate them after you’ve completed your final strategy, based on the head keywords you decided to prioritize. Looking through the lens of your overall strategy, long-tail keywords tend to be more of a tactical consideration.

Why invest in organic search?

January 4, 2021
📓 Article

Search continues to be a critical driver of website traffic, and, in turn, leads and new customers. And organic search in particular is a relatively low-cost investment in capturing that traffic, with lots of side benefits. Organic search is a:

  • Critical marketing channel
  • Important way of building trust
  • Durable generator of traffic, leads, and revenue
  • Useful lever for organizing your content strategy and site experience

Organic search is where your customers are

Organic search drives huge amounts of traffic – a typical number that’s thrown around is over 50%, but you can see what’s true for your situation by checking your analytics. Even without optimizing for organic search, most companies see a majority of their traffic – and a large percentage of leads and customers – coming from organic.

So you kind of have to be there, just as you’d be with any other major marketing channel.

But organic search has some advantages that make it a really great place to be, too. There’s a big difference in the value of a random person driving by your billboard on a highway, as compared to someone who sees useful content from you in response to a search for a solution to a problem you can solve. Your audience is trying to unblock themselves. They have problems, and they run a search on Google, using keyword phrases, to find solutions to those problems.

Organic search is heavily targeted toward people who want to become customers, and in our experience, it’s extremely effective at doing that.

Organic search results are a way to build trust

Customers tend to trust organic search results more than they do paid ads. And in our experience, leads who came through organic search end up being much more likely to buy than people who come in through paid channels. There’s something about organic results that seem to do a better job of targeting people who are interested in buying.

Organic search also tends to be a quick way for customers to assess the credibility of multiple companies in a space. If you’ve ever Googled something, you probably focused your clicks on the top few results. That high ranking is an important signal of a company’s standing in the market.

The flipside of this is – if you aren’t ranking for relevant terms in organic search, your competitors might be. And that means your competitors are building trust that they have the resources and product to solve your customers’ problems. Try to avoid scenarios where active users of your product are finding solutions to their follow on problems, on your competitors’ sites.

Rankings in organic search are durable

The minute you stop paying for Google Ads – or any other paid channel – you don’t show up in those listings anymore, which means you aren’t really building an asset, but instead paying for leads.

That can be fine as a short-term strategy, but a lot of B2B companies develop dependency on paid channels, which, when they get turned off, mean that lead volume declines dramatically. Plus, ads are becoming more competitive and take up more space on the front page. This means that clicks from paid ads are going to become more expensive.

But with organic search, you can continue to generate leads and revenue without paying for placement. It’s true that you have to make some content investments to maintain your rank, but you’re probably making these investments, anyway.

Content strategy and site experience can be organized using SEO.

To be successful in organic search, you need a strategy. “Keyword strategy” is often made to sound complicated, but fundamentally it’s pretty simple – find topics (not just keywords, topics) that are relevant to your business, with a worthwhile balance of competition and volume.

A keyword strategy can be a great way to organize some of your content marketing. The exercise of going through brainstorming, organizing, and then prioritizing topic areas is a super helpful exercise for content teams.

And it’s a great reason to prioritize site experience, too.There are just 3 things that we look at in our 5-minute SEO audit. Does the site load fast? Does it look good? Can we tell what it’s about?

Google (and other search engines) are pretty good at prioritizing high-quality content in search results. This means that organic search can be a good organizing principle for your content strategy. The data that’s available is a reasonable proxy for what’s in demand.

By the same token, SEO is responsive to a high-quality site experience. That means that SEO is an important lever for thinking and talking about site performance.

Conclusion

Organic search is an extremely useful channel for marketers, and one that’s not super expensive to get right. Beyond organic search, there are some other considerations, too – owning your audience, getting conversions, and distributing links to your content on other channels.

Building keyword strategies efficiently

January 2, 2021
📓 Article

There are lots of extremely long guides to building keyword strategies. This is not one of those. The idea behind this list is to give you the fastest steps to building a high-quality keyword strategy without wasted effort.

Limit the number of seed keywords you come up with

The first thing you’ll do is generate an initial list of topics, or “seed keywords”. It is possible to build seed keyword lists that have many hundreds (or even thousands) of keywords that you then go on to evaluate for inclusion in your final strategy. In fact, many articles on how to build a keyword strategy suggest that you do this, often by using Google’s suggestions or suggestions from a paid tool, for example.

It’s often helpful to be thorough, but in practice we see limited value from additional suggestions generated by keyword tools, unless you have a large team behind your SEO efforts. We bet you can name most of the seed keywords you want to use in an hour or two of research. No need to build exhaustive lists.

If you decide to go after long-tail keywords, generate them after you’ve completed your final strategy

Long tail keywords are keyword phrases that are complex and relatively long – for example, “how to measure customer satisfaction for automotive companies” – that also have low volume but high propensity to convert. Pursuing long-tail keywords can be extremely helpful, particularly for direct-to-consumer companies.

But as a matter of process, you should prioritize building a list of more general, or “head”, topics. Then take your most promising keywords and expand them into high-intent versions that you can build landing pages around.

Pick seed keywords that are not too narrow, but also not too broad

The most efficient sources for seed phrases include your own site, your marketing materials, your competitors’ sites, and transcripts from sales calls. Put these in a spreadsheet, ideally something in the cloud (Google Sheets, for example) so you can easily collaborate on it.

Then, you’ll want to make sure you pick seed keywords at the right level of detail for your strategy. Let’s imagine you run a company that sells software to help companies assess their customer satisfaction.

We would probably include “customer satisfaction measurement” or “survey software”. We probably would not include “how sales reps should use customer satisfaction measurement software”, because it’s too narrow… Or “customer satisfaction”, because it’s too broad. There are lots of reasons that people would be looking for this term that have nothing to do with what we sell.

Understand what volume and competition data are telling you

There are lots of ways to pull volume and competition data, but the point is to answer the questions:

  • How much interest is there in these topics?
  • How much high-quality information is already out there?

Just as with everything else in business, we want to find places where we can (a) efficiently fill a need that’s (b) worth filling. The typical way to do this is to pull volume and competition statistics from a tool like SEMRush or Ahrefs. (Note: the numbers you’ll get from such tools are very rough and only give us directional information.)

If you want to get creative, you could also use tools like Google Trends or even other data like social shares, though of course that would result in data that wouldn’t be specific to organic search.

Relevance for each keyword is a critical measurement

Relevance is what you want to be known for. And it’s ultimately what makes visitors convert on the pages you build for organic search.

For a company that sells customer satisfaction software, a term like “customer satisfaction software” will have the highest score possible for relevance. On the other hand, a term like “survey software” – because it can mean so many other things – will probably have less relevance. Be sure to include relevance along with volume and competition as a statistic for your final weighting.

Balance volume, competition, and relevance in the right way for your position in the market

The last step in building a keyword strategy is to combine the 3 key statistics – relevance, volume, and competition – for all of your seed keywords, and see what seems like the best bets.

You can use whatever formula you like to combine your keywords. In particular, you might be at a company that’s just starting out with content marketing, in which case your algorithm puts more emphasis on picking stuff that’s not competitive. On the other hand, you might be in the opposite situation, in which you’re working at a company that already has a lot of traction in search. In that case, it might make sense to go after more competitive keywords.

Use a simple formula. (Or skip using a formula altogether and eyeball it, if you need to.) Of course you should choose things that rank well on your list. But you might have other considerations, too. What’s easy to update? What do we feel comfortable talking about? What do we know about where our business is going? These are all things that might influence the choice of where you ultimately focus.

Iterate and update

Most companies (and, for that matter, agencies), build a keyword strategy once and then forget about it and don’t touch it again for, let’s be honest, years. This is bad, especially at fast-growing companies that need to be responsive to changing conditions around the strategy they’ve built. You need to revisit your keyword strategy consistently, let’s say once every six months to a year, and make sure everyone’s still on board with it.

Building a keyword strategy doesn’t do anything unless it gets followed, and even if it is followed, it takes a consistent effort over months to see results.

Conclusion

Building a keyword strategy doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process. You can build a reliable, defensible strategy in just a couple of hours if you limit your focus, incorporate relevance alongside volume and competition, and keep your strategy updated in response to conditions.

Don't worry too much about duplicate content

December 19, 2020
📓 Article

In a lot of client meetings, we hear clients express their concerns about whether they’ll be penalized for duplicate content. It’s unlikely, and here’s why.

Understanding duplicate content

Let’s imagine you run a SaaS company that helps companies manage subscription billing. And your site has a blog post titled “What is billing management?” Perfect.

You want to build your expertise in this area, so you start writing related posts – let’s say, “Billing Management vs. Accounting.”

At some point, you’re going to have to define ‘billing management,’ and that definition is going to look an awful lot like the one you wrote in the previous piece. Or perhaps you think there’s a need for a new article that would benefit from whole sections of content that you wrote for other posts.

The myth is that, based on this “duplicate content”, Google will assess some kind of penalty, making it harder for you to rank and acquire traffic.

What duplicate content (and the duplicate content penalty) really means

It might be the phrasing that scares people. “Penalty.” Punishment!

But really, the duplicate content penalty just means that duplicate content – and by “duplicate content”, we generally mean content that is exactly the same – will confuse Google, and may not show up in search results. Because, as they say on their site, Google tries hard to index and show pages with distinct information.

Google is focused on providing the best possible user experience. When you, the user, type a question into the search bar, you want to search results that offer varied answers.

If Google identifies the exact same answers – word for word – on several sites, it’s going to rank one of them much higher and the others much lower.

So, don’t think of the ‘duplicate content penalty’ as a mode of punishment. Rather, it’s a system that puts a premium on unique information. (Of course, Google is not a purely agnostic search engine, but that’s a topic for another blog post.)

Scenarios you shouldn’t worry about

Most businesses are working really hard to produce original content in strategic ways that assert their expertise. Still, they worry about duplicate penalties. Some scenarios that will not trigger duplicate content penalties:

  • Reusing text you used elsewhere. Just make sure you paraphrase or rephrase it.
  • Multiple posts on one topic. So long as the posts are individualized with different headlines and subheads, multiple posts on a topic are actually great for SEO.
  • Multiple posts in one keyword area. Fear not: this is another very effective strategy for building credibility and search performance.

None of these examples are actually duplication. Rather, they might be considered iteration, or repetition, or variations on a theme – all of which are the content marketer’s friend.

In general, an effective content marketing strategy involves making the most out of all the content you have. Strategies we recommend to clients include:

After all, you spent a lot of time crafting this content – with a little revision time, you can give it new life. And by doing so, you know that everything on your site is relevant and active.

What to do about truly duplicate content

OK, there are a few cases where you may have truly duplicate content.

Most commonly, this is caused by CMS errors rendering the same content on multiple URLs. Technical issues like these are common but easily found with a technical audit of the site.

Or, your duplication might be intentional. Perhaps you published a blog on your site and Medium (which we don’t recommend). Or you’ve got event info on multiple pages of your site. Or you have press releases that are republished elsewhere.

If you can, set some canonical tags. They’ll let Google know which of the duplicate pages should be ranked higher. SEMrush has a great little guide for canonical tags. But in any case, you’re very unlikely to be assessed any kind of real penalty for this.

Of course, another cause of duplicate content is straight-up plagiarism. Don’t do this. It’s not good for your brand or your soul or even your SEO. Search engines will notice your duplicate content if you plagiarize, and assess actual penalties. Like, penalty penalties, also known as “manual actions”.

This is very unlikely to be a problem unless you are doing it intentionally.

Conclusion

For most businesses, duplicate content penalties are not a huge danger. Google ranks duplicate content lower when it can’t decide which of the pages has primacy. So when we talk about penalties, we’re really just talking about weaker search performance.

If you’re taking time to create original content and publish it in a consistent way, you’re probably not at much risk for these ‘penalties.’ Optimizing your site for SEO means taking inventory of your content, and making sure there are no duplicates.

Fear of duplication should not stop you from repurposing and reusing content, or from building numerous assets around individual keyword groups. These tactics are the backbone of an effective content marketing program. Cases like republishing are not necessarily good, but are unlikely to cause you problems.

Have any questions about your duplication fears? We love to talk shop. Hit us up in the chat below.

How small companies and startups should choose a content management system

December 7, 2020
📓 Article

Choosing a CMS is one of the most important decisions you’ll make with your marketing tech stack. There are literally hundreds of options, but we think for most marketing teams – at companies up to, let’s say, 200 employees – it boils down to just a few.

Before we get into a typology of content management systems, there is one cardinal rule that we use with everyone we talk to.

Innovate with your product, not with your CMS. You want a standard, popular, good-enough solution that lets you go fast.

  • Yes, fast means that the website itself is fast – though this is achievable with most standard CMSes.
  • More importantly, fast means that your CMS isn’t an obstacle for your content marketing team. A common outcome of CMS decisions is that content marketing teams end up having to use a system that they don’t feel comfortable with, that has lots of unexpected quirks, or that otherwise trips them up and reduces the speed of adding and updating content. Avoid this if you can.

Types of CMSes

Here’s how we divide them up:

Vanilla CMS. Really, this is Wordpress, though there are lots of others that follow this model (Drupal, for example, in most of its configurations. But most small companies should just use Wordpress if they’re going down the Vanilla CMS route.)

This type of CMS is a combination of an application that lets you edit – and display – content, with a database, which stores content. Each page is generated for a website visitor on demand. For example, if you visit /blog/legal-process-management, Wordpress will do a bunch of work to retrieve the blog template, populate it with the correct text from the database for that page, and show it to the user.

Wordpress is a little slow and not cutting-edge, but the software is well-understood, easy to host, easy to find help with, and has quite a lot of flexibility.

Static site generator. Think Jekyll, or Hugo. This is technically a CMS in that you use it to manage content, but it works very differently from a vanilla CMS.

All content is stored in special types of text files. These are edited to make updates, usually using a plain text editor. When changes have been made and a new edition of the site is ready to launch, the static site generator application is run either on the web or on someone’s computer. That application combs through all the text files and pre-generates a copy of every possible page someone might see, and those copies are stored on a web server.

Static site generator sites are really fast for site visitors. If you’re a developer, they also offer infinite flexibility, and are very low-maintenance. If you’re not a developer, though, static site generators make your life more complicated – you can put a graphical interface on top of them, but they’re not really designed for that workflow.

Website builder. Think Webflow. Your entire site is hosted through a SaaS app, completely managed by a third-party vendor. The mechanics might follow the CMS or static site generator models, but it really doesn’t matter because the only thing that an editor or developer sees is the ability to edit all the files and templates on the site through a web-based editor.

A high-quality website builder will work well for most marketing teams. It can be a little scary that you’re trusting your website to a SaaS somewhere, but in practice we haven’t seen problems. Some website builders severely limit your design options – you want something pretty fully-featured.

Custom or advanced solution. There’s an infinite set of these, and most agencies will try to sell these because they result in more billable hours, and they’re more interesting to build. (HubSpot’s CMS – a tempting choice for HubSpot users – also falls into this category because it works in a lot of ways that are weirdly proprietary.)

For most companies, we advise against these. They tend to have odd quirks and bugs, which violate our “go fast” rules above. They tend to be ultimately harder to migrate from, harder to maintain, and less secure. There are definitely companies that need – and should use – custom solutions. You’ll know if you’re a company like that!

What types of companies should use what kinds of CMS?

Companies with intense developer cultures are served well by static site generators. This is also true for companies where there is lots of interest in staffing marketing with engineering help (rare).

If you’ve got pretty sophisticated design help, that’s an argument in favor of a website builder – Webflow is really your best bet here. Otherwise, you may want to consider Wordpress.

Most types of CMS will work fine for most types of companies, with various pros and cons. If something is working for you, even if it’s not working perfectly, that’s solid evidence in favor of sticking with what you have.

Should I migrate to another type of CMS if I already have one in place?

If you’re asking this question – generally, no.

CMSes all come with tradeoffs. If you’ve already got the organizational structure and resources in place to support Wordpress, and you’re using Wordpress, stick with Wordpress. And rarely should you switch between CMSes in a particular category – don’t migrate from Wordpress to Drupal without very compelling reasons for doing so.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. These all assume you’re feeling significant pain from your current solution and have specific reasons for wanting to switch.

  • You’re in the wrong category altogether. You’re a company with an intense developer culture that would really respond to using a static site generator, but you’re using Wordpress.
  • You’re using an unpopular or custom solution and have the resources to migrate to something more popular. You’re using ObscureCMS or HubSpot CMS, and you have budget to move to Webflow. (Or Wordpress, for that matter.)
  • A significant marketing resource shift is taking place. You used to have 2 front-end developers in marketing who maintained your Jekyll (static site generator) site, but they left, you need the open slots for demand gen managers, and an agency will build and maintain a site based on something standard for you.
  • You have 2 (or more) CMSes. The reasoning behind having 2 CMSes is generally that you want a different workflow for more static pages like the homepage, as opposed to templated pages like blog posts. But it’s hard to keep design and other important aspects of 2 CMSes in sync, so you usually end up looking like you have 2 slightly different sites, which causes a visitor experience that reflects poorly on your brand.

There’s no magic in any of these choices. Generally, you should use something conventional and well-supported. Innovate in your product, not your marketing stack.

Starting from zero with content marketing

December 3, 2020
📓 Article

Getting started with content marketing isn’t easy. As we talk about a lot – not only do you have to figure out what to write, and write it, but you also have to worry about distribution channels, and making sure you content you create adds people to your ongoing audience. In addition to all the logistics, you have to figure out the specific strategies that will work for your company. And you have to get the content created, which means paying for high-quality writing, or doing it yourself!

And this is before you know if anything you’re going to do will actually work.

Still, content marketing is a good place to start. Here’s why:

  • A content library is free, and it’s an asset you own and can improve over time (more here). With paid marketing, when you stop spending, the lead flow stops. Plus, while paid is faster, you’re still looking at a huge investment to figure it out and make it work.
  • Having even a small amount of content on your site helps you establish a point of view that you can use for marketing materials, with customers, with press, and so on.
  • We haven’t seen a B2B brand be successful without high-quality content. It’s helpful to invest early.

But if you have no money, no team, and no strategy (yet), it’s daunting to start from scratch. So here’s what we suggest:

  • Start by actively participating in the communities where your customers hang out. Let’s say you build software to help sales reps close deals faster. Where do sales reps hang out? What about sales enablement managers? Join their public Slack communities, connect with them on social, and answer their questions. Build a spreadsheet of conversations that are happening that you can be helpful – not promotional – in.
  • Use your existing expertise in these communities. Answer questions, engage in short conversations – but provide value, not promotion. (Yes, we’re saying this twice).
  • And of course, talk to your existing customers and find out what questions they still have.

Once you have some rhythm to your engagement, you can start producing a very modest number of high-quality articles.

  • If you can produce 1 - 2 pieces a month that are of significant length (let’s just say 1,000 words?) and help your customer solve a specific problem, that’s a good place to start. Consistency is key. Less frequent but more consistent is better.
  • Base the topics for these articles on problems that you know your customers are having. Some of this information will be from the conversations you’re having about your area of expertise.
  • Take each article you create, and promote it as much as you can. (I’m assuming you’ve taken an initial step of building your audience as much as you can, too.) Social is important, but the best places are often smaller groups where your users are congregating. And what about your existing customers?
  • Use each article to build subsequent articles. Try to pick an area where you can develop some topic expertise and build for depth first, not breadth.

These steps are free, not terribly time-consuming, and can help you build a minimum viable content marketing and promotion strategy.

How to speed up team learning

December 2, 2020
📗 Field Note

Digital marketing can be incredibly effective, but there are a huge number of variables to consider, and content has to be successful at all levels of the content stack – including copy, structure, distribution and promotion – in order to generate revenue.

Plus: the environment is constantly changing. New channels become available, company positioning evolves, available resources expand or contract, and the product adds or removes features to satisfy customers.

As a result, successful marketing isn’t so much about being great at any one thing, though of course that helps. Instead, it’s about being responsive to changing conditions, and learning fast.

We recently read an article documenting what it’s like for surgical teams learning how to perform a new type of heart surgery. This new procedure is amazingly effective but the tech involved is unfamiliar, and much harder for surgical teams to learn.

In the study, the authors observed that this particular new technology “requires greater interdependence and communication among team members”, and that’s generally true when new technologies come on the scene. These surgeons couldn’t get a better outcome without communicating a lot more.

Neither can we as digital marketers. In digital marketing today, there’s just too much going on for any one person to be able to solve problems by themselves – creating the right content, editing it, posting it, and promoting it all require lots of specialized skills that are very difficult to find in one person. So establishing a shared understanding is key.

This often takes the form of a team board or a spreadsheet where team tasks are posted, together with their relative priorities and statuses. At Ercule, each meeting with clients is structured around a simple tracker, and even if we’re not touching a specific piece of content, we use the spreadsheet to guide a structured conversation around what’s happening.

The article also mentions an experimental and collaborative mindset as a key attribute of successful teams:

“Teams whose members felt comfortable making suggestions, trying things that might not work, pointing out potential problems, and admitting mistakes were more successful at learning a new procedure.”

It’s easy to think that we have a lot of data, and therefore we know what’s going on and don’t need to talk about it. Website traffic is going up – that’s good, right? But actually, having all the data kind of complicates the additional work. Website traffic might be going up, but we need to understand why. We need to understand whether it’s converting.

Discussion helps because we can think together about what the data is really telling us. We can figure out the little things that we can do to fix the problems we’re seeing. And an open discussion is also better for junior marketers, because then they feel more liberated to actually question what’s going on. (We often find that junior marketers are the ones who actually have the best idea about what we should be doing next.)

Conclusion

Successful teams don’t avoid mistakes. But in addition to being highly collaborative, and experimental, they structure their work so they can engage in real-time learning — analyzing and drawing lessons from the process while it’s under way. And they set things up explicitly so that learning can happen as fast as possible.

November 2020 Changelog

December 1, 2020
👷‍♀️ Change Log

👋 Here’s a quick update on how we made Ercule better in November 2020.

  • We’ve run a couple of interviews with experts in areas adjacent to marketing to see what we can learn from them. This month, we talked to Jason Yee, developer advocate at Gremlin, and Bill Miksich, head of Services at Customer.io.

  • Revised and refined our content pipeline.

  • Experimented with video content as a more digestible way to share insights.

  • Made some new friends in the broader marketing community.

  • Established a hybrid team-meeting / tennis-match on Fridays. (COVID-safe and Zoom-free!)