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Principles for driving content performance

July 24, 2020
📓 Article

How do we see forward-thinking marketers drive content? There are four principles that we’ve seen our clients use to be successful with content performance and SEO.

  • An organic search strategy that’s well-executed today can improve your marketing across all channels, forever
  • Marketers should build an audience that they own – not search engines
  • The best content libraries are treated as a product that’s continually improved
  • Underlying all successful marketing is an efficient idea-to-content pipeline that makes generating high-quality content part of the day to day operation of your business

1) Build an SEO strategy that improves your marketing everywhere

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. Here’s how we do keyword strategy, by the way, plus our template.

Once you have a strategy, you can pursue it using tactics that improve your marketing everywhere, not just on search engines.

  • The most important of these is to generate high-quality content – articles that have enduring interest for your customers, that respond to their questions and help them get more done, and that are additive to what’s already available to them.
  • This content has a good chance of performing well in search, but it’s also critical to distribute this content far and wide – we call this a “link distribution strategy”. One component of this might be backlinks, but what really matters is a process to get this content in front of as many people as possible who it can help. That means making sure it shows up not just on social, but also on sites that are relevant to your community, on Q&A forums, in relevant articles that other people have written, in emails coming from your sales reps, and more.
  • Since this content is relatively hard to create, you’ll get the most out of it by reusing it as much as possible. A blog post becomes a webinar, and it’s a chapter in a whitepaper, and so on.

Following these practices, you get your organic search strategy to reinforce all the other places that you’re marketing. Even fixing technical issues on your site can be helpful for everything else you do if you focus on things like improving conversion rate or fixing user experience issues.

2) Focus on building an audience you own – not Google.

A huge percentage of traffic is driven to sites via search – between paid and organic clicks, some estimate more than 70%. This isn’t necessarily a problem, particularly not in the short term. On the organic side, that means changes in algorithms influence whether people see your content. Sometimes that can be really good, but sometimes it isn’t. On paid channels, if you stop paying, you lose access.

(This isn’t just a search problem, by the way. It’s a problem with any channel where you rent access to your audience, and that could include content syndication, paid email lists, social, and many other channels.)

If, on the other hand, you spend time building direct connections with your audience – via newsletter subscriptions, targeted email, freemium trials, LinkedIn connections, and so on – you can talk to those customers anytime you want, without having to get past Google’s or anybody else’s filters.

Aside from revenue, growing a direct audience is the most valuable thing a marketer can do. It’s not only a source of future customers, it’s also a source of message propagation, because the people for whom your message is useful send it out again to other people who might want to join your audience.

3) Treat content as a product, with a library that’s continually maintained and updated and acts as a resource for customers.

As compared to one-off blog posts, a product is a collection of parts (individual content pieces) that work together to help your customer level up in their job. Here’s an archive of the Drift blog from when they were just a couple years old, to show you how this can work. You can see how all the posts work together to help their prospects and customers to do their jobs better. Posts include:

  • How to define the relationship between product managers and marketers, with a link to a Slack community
  • What Relationship Marketing is
  • Growth marketing framework
  • Explanation of how UX applies to marketing

Your content is a library for your prospects and customers, and the people they work closely with. For all of those people, what is everything that they need to know to do their jobs well, preferably with a focus on the use cases or tactics that your product enables?

4) Build efficient, effective idea-to-content pipelines that make generating content part of the day-to-day, not a chore

Marketers often focus on how to come up with content ideas, but you also need a good way to convert your ideas into published content pieces. We call this the idea-to-content pipeline. The key to the idea-to-content pipeline is that, as much as possible, you want to avoid writing things from scratch. Ways to get around this include:

  • Picking topics that you know you can write about. Looking at the keyword strategy advice we give above, an additional consideration might be the amount of effort involved in creating something that addresses a particular topic.
  • Creating an outline first, and populating it 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. As a bonus, content tends to perform better on search if it hits related topics that Google considers important.
  • Interviewing your customers (and colleagues) regularly, with questions that help populate missing pieces in articles. As a bonus, some of these interviews probably could be, and should be, webinars or office hours.
  • Repurposing as much as you can. 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”?
  • A notebook is really helpful. We keep pretty good track of all the conversations we have, and the same themes tend to emerge as we look backwards to conversations we’ve had weeks or months ago. These themes are attached to specific wording and notes that we reuse in our blog posts.
  • Having a good process for getting content up on your site is really important and often overlooked – most people think that the CMS that powers your site is a technical decision, but in large part, the CMS you choose should be governed by the speed at which it lets you get content live.

Conclusion

Designing great posts based on keyword research is only the beginning of content performance. Think of your content as a product, and use it to build direct relationships with your target audience. Over time, individual posts will add up to a content library – a resource that keeps customers and prospects coming back.

To build this content and momentum in a sustainable way, break big campaigns down into daily tasks. With an idea-to-content pipeline, this can all be one fluid, creative process.

Good questions for customer interviews

July 16, 2020
📓 Article

To create content that performs, it’s critical for writers to understand how customers perceive your product, what problems they use it to solve, and what problems, more generally, they have.

(In shorter words: writers need empathy.)

A great way to do this is by talking to customers. In the vast majority of companies we’ve worked with, content producers, and often even marketers more generally, don’t do this. Common objections include:

  • Not having time
  • Not wanting to bother customers
  • Not knowing what to ask

The first two are easy to deal with. The time you take in building empathy with customers is paid off by the time you’ll save creating the right content, and really understanding where your customers are coming from. And as for not bothering customers – they would love to talk to you about your product, as long as they feel like you’re listening. Relationships with your customers, like trust, are a positive-sum game.

So what if you don’t know what to ask? Here are a few good questions to start with.

Tell me about yourself

This is a quick one, but you want to make a connection with the person you’re interviewing. What’s their role, how long have they been in it? How do they describe the company they work at? Useful context for understanding where they’re coming from.

Before you start the interview, you should also take a minute to tell them who you are and your role at your company. And some general tips: show your engagement with the interviewee, and take it slow since often the most interesting information comes after a moment of reflection.

What do you like about your work? What do you dislike?

Start listening here for things they want to do more of – sources of value for them in their work – and pain points. If you’re interviewing an SDR who uses your product and they tell you that the most unpleasant part of their day is filling out reports, you know that the ability of your product to automate reporting is useful to them.

Tell us how you heard about our product

Did they hear about it from a friend, see it on social, or read some interesting article that led them to it? In any case, this is critical data for your content distribution strategy, and you’ll want to share it with your demand gen team, too. (Or maybe your customer can’t remember how they heard about it; that’s useful information, too.)

For extra points with your marketing ops team, see if your customer’s memory of where they heard about it is the same as what’s reflected in your lead gen analytics.

What are you using it to do?

This is the first question that will really help you home in on what you should be writing about. Not only does this answer tell you what problems your software solves, but more importantly, it tells you how your customer thinks about the problem your software solves.

You might get a really simple answer: “We use your software to manage our inventory.” But that gives you a chance to dig a little bit deeper. “Tell me more about that process”, “How did you do that before you started using our software?” or similar questions will reveal details about the customer’s goals and experiences that you can use to write more useful content for them.

What’s your favorite part of our product?

Share this answer with your product team. But also, the language here is useful for your landing pages and calls to action.

“What is your favorite part of using our CRM?” “Well, I love how flexible it is. You can basically do anything with this software.”

This customer (and others) say that they love the flexibility of your software. This leads to:

  • A series of how-to articles on all the interesting things you can do
  • A survey of top things that your CRM is used to do
  • The use of the “flexibility” theme in your ads, product page copy, and landing pages

If you had a magic wand, what would you change?

Share this answer with your product team, too. From a content perspective, the opportunity here is to know what to avoid. For example, is your search painful to use? Maybe take “powerful search” out of your landing page bullets.

If you were to describe our product to a colleague, what would you say?

This is a key question for your organic search strategy. How do your users talk about your app? What do they think it is? You can target this phrase in search. But also, if you’re hearing answers that are not what your product does, that gives you an opportunity to write content that helps users better understand what they should be using it for.

“I usually describe it as a tool that makes it easier to schedule appointments.”

Of course that means you should make sure you’re targeting how to use your product to make appointment-setting easier. But it also means that you can write some other posts about how your product maximizes customer satisfaction, or facilitates customer engagement via instant videoconferencing.

Any other comments?

Letting your customer talk will give you some useful insights. They may also have a problem that you can easily solve for them – a misunderstanding about how a feature works, for example, or lack of awareness about something that’s available to them.

Conclusion

Investing in customer interviews will generate a huge payback for your content marketing efforts. Even one interview every week or two will help you build empathy for your customer. Becoming a skilled user interviewer takes time, and there are lots of places to learn more; Nielsen Norman Group is a go-to for us.

Building trust with your site visitors

July 15, 2020
📓 Article

Marketers spend a lot of time figuring out how to get attention. We pay for it on Google and LinkedIn and Instagram, we think about whether our search results will end up at the top of someone’s screen when they are trying to solve a problem, and we send lots and lots of email with cute titles. We use lots of fun gimmicks – sometimes ones that have nothing to do with the brand or what you offer – just for the attention and the chance to continue the conversation.

It’s competitive, and the competition is exhausting. Attention is zero-sum. There’s a fixed amount, and to get attention for yourself, you need to take it from someone else.

Sometimes looking for attention works, and it’s certainly an important thing to know how to do.

But there’s a big part of the story that marketers often miss – building trust. Trust is needed for any transaction to take place, and the world’s biggest brands are often those that are the most trusted. Trust is:

  • Positive-sum. When you build trust with a customer, it’s easier to build more – versus attention, which you get a limited amount of. And when I build trust with a customer, it doesn’t mean there’s less trust for you. In fact, we can both benefit at the same time.

  • A way of reducing friction. When you build trust, the right customers go from wondering, “how can I avoid buying from this person?” to “I bet this person can solve my problem, and I want to work with them to make that happen.”

  • Key to customer satisfaction, especially for complex products like software. The path to getting value out of them is long and circuitous, and it only begins with the sale.

So how can we focus on building trust?

Make promises, then keep them

The major way to build trust is to make promises, and then keep them. This manifests itself in a lot of ways, including consistency, value, and authenticity. Some examples:

Explain clearly what your product is about on the front page. When companies make really vague pronouncements on the front page, it’s a missed opportunity to make a promise about what you deliver, and how. And it often confuses visitors or turns them off.

Here’s an interesting example. Is the heading clear? Should their subhead be the heading? If you had never heard of this company, would this make you want to buy?

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Make it easy to access useful information. This can mean a lot of different things, from having a clear and consistent navigation bar, to having clear topics in your content library that are navigable and correspond with your visitors’ problems.

The content library from Nielsen Norman Group, a UX consultancy.

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Be consistent with your brand. This can mean simple stuff like making sure your design is up to date and helps your user navigate, rather than getting in their way. More generally, it means making sure that all your communications and all of your brand personality works together (though that’s a topic for another post.)

Price honestly and fairly. Is it easy to cancel? If a user isn’t getting value from your service, can you charge them less or automatically switch them to a lower tier?

We love this “maintenance plan” for a service we recently canceled (left). It’s not available until you try to cancel – which is super-easy, by the way – but it gives the user an option other than “we’re going to delete all your data.” By way of comparison, does knowing how hard it is to cancel the New York Times (right) make you want to sign up?

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Make outbound touches useful and relevant to your prospect. Personalization works in outreach. Why? Because it creates trust that someone’s reaching out to you for a reason, and has done their research.

Is this useful personalization? How could it be improved?

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Conclusion

What would happen if you viewed your goal as creating trust rather than getting attention? Slower growth maybe, at first. But ultimately – much more durable, valuable relationships with your customers and prospects.