“Our brains create stories to make sense of complexity, and we are bombarded daily with data and personal experiences of escalating complexity. Our stories help us weight data as important (or not) as well as judge the data as a good or bad according to our point of view "-Annette Simmons "Whoever Tells The Best Story Wins"
Great content is a smart way to market your brand because it does most of the heavy lifting for you. Content marketing, brand journalism- whatever you want to call it really comes into its own when it allows a marketer to focus on other aspects of the funnel.
Doing so you can focus on optimization and customer retention while the content drives thousands of visitors to your site. In this book we’re going to focus almost exclusively on the creative part, the right brain of content marketing that works to humanize your digital presence.
What’s most exciting about content marketing is when executed with real conviction it becomes more than a cheap and fast way to acquire customers- it humanizes your digital presence.
At its core content marketing is all about effective communication and storytelling which are both fundamental parts of who we are as humans. We love stories- it’s part of our DNA.
Without stories we wouldn’t be able to function as a modern society - our ancestors would have clubbed each other to death in caves over simple misunderstandings.
For a forward-thinking company to not have a serious content initiative is the greatest form of self-sabotage. How will anyone begin to understand the problems your company solves? How will they begin to understand the technology behind it? Why should they care?
In order for thousands, or millions, of people to connect with your idea, they need to begin to understand your company first. Generally the more ground breaking a company the harder it has to work to create the kind of messaging that generates massive awareness and growth.
What everyone seems to gloss over when reciting the gospel of the great Hotmail, Dropbox, and Air BnB growth hacks is that they solved incredibly easy to understand problems- email, unlimited storage, and trustworthy vacation rentals/couch surfing. Simply put, everyone of their respective early users had already experienced the fairly common problem the companies solved.
If your company solves more complicated problems, then your biggest challenge is an educational one. In which case no amount of clever tricks will help customers to understand what their problems are, and how your company solves them.
The book "Thinking Fast & Slow" by Nobel Prize winning author Daniel Kahneman does a fantastic job of explaining the complex processes underlying human decision making, and information processing. Kahneman cites many studies that illustrate how the human mind is more intricate, but at the same time, simpler, than we think.
He splits the mind into two parts- system 1 that focuses on automatic operations (your inner caveman), and system 2 which focuses on controlled operations (your inner voice that speaks with a British accent).
Essentially "Thinking Fast & Slow" explains how system 1 impacts the controlled decisions made by system 2. In short, your inner caveman has a lot more say over how you communicate with others, and what you buy than you think. It also explains why things like poor UX design, outdated urban planning, and traditional advertising are so painful.
In theory, if we were as super smart as we all like to think we are, we’d be able to understand anything thrown our way. Instantly. Every single time. But that’s not how our brains work.
Kahneman's summarizes it this way:
"System 1 continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what’s going in our world at any instant. I attempt to give a sense of the complexity and richness of automatic and often unconscious processes that underlie intuitive thinking, and how these automatic processes explain the heuristics of judgement…Part 2 updates the study of judgment heuristics and explores a major puzzle: why is it difficult for us to think statistically? We easily think associatively, we think metaphorically, we think casually, but statistics requires thinking about many things at once, which is something that system 1 is not designed to do.”
Content marketing assumes that your prospective customers are not logical, they are not robots. Why? Because stories are never 100% logical, they engage the parts of the brain that think associatively, and metaphorically.
By producing stories around your brand you engage your customers through associative thought first, and then present logical facts later in an article, or further down the marketing funnel
Your customers, while totally capable of connecting the dots, may need months to reach the “aha moment where they realize your groundbreaking product, or service is exactly what they need. In the meantime content helps them connect, and understand the problems present in their own lives. Through that association your brand remains top of mind, and when it finally clicks (and there is a real need) they immediately think of your company first, and not an established competitor.
In that way content marketing is the ultimate growth hack, because content marketing never stops- it allows you to reach potential customers over and over again for a fraction of what it would cost through traditional advertising, or digital ads.
By giving your content marketing a framework focused on discovering opportunities and driving engagement you can begin to understand your audience. In doing so you can create stories specifically for them, allowing them to create positive associations with your company.
This is what traditional marketers might call brand awareness, except that’s no longer an amorphous, vague word. We now have a handful of ways to quantify awareness (social media engagement is a great one). If we can measure it, then we can test to see the various ways we can replicate it, and once we do that we can replicate it over, and over again.
Great content marketing does three things:
1) Allows you to collect basic data on prospective customers- good content creates indicators that your product and message, or both are resonating with your target audience.
2) Breakdown complex problems, and reinforce your brand's ability to solve problems by reaching potential customers via email, social media, or search
3) Allows you to think like a media company, without worrying about generating millions in pageviews to generate ad revenue. All you have to do is move convert visitors into paying customers.
Opportunity & A Level Playing Field: Advertisers & Publishers Are Alienating Readers
Over the last 15-20 years legacy publications, and new media publications have had their revenue gutted by the internet and social media. As access to information has increased, the cost associated with accessing that information has decreased.
Because media has always relied on advertising for revenue the increase in the amount of content available to advertise against has forced advertising rates to collapse. It’s now cheaper than ever to advertise to a large group of people, which has decreased the quality of ads, while also pushing the conversation rates of those ads lower.
As such publications are feeling the squeeze- on one hand are readers desperate for great content, but who are being bombarded by advertisements. On the other are advertisers who want to pay less and less for views.
This issue is further compounded by the rise of ad-blockers which cut the major revenue source of publications and content creators, who in turn turning to more aggressive ways of combating ad-blockers with pay-walls, pre-roll advertising, and increasingly aggressive email opt-ins- effectively destroying the symbiotic relationship between readers and publishers that has existed for centuries.
This viscous cycle is creating an opportunity for any entrepreneur or marketer who understands the value of content as an awareness and customer acquisition channel. If you sell a product, then you’ve solved the largest issue publishers grapple with- generating revenue from inbound traffic. All you have to do is create a path for a customer to follow from engaging with a piece of content, through to a completed purchase.
More importantly as publishers move to publishing platforms on LinkedIn, and Facebook it essentially levels the playing field- Any business that’s developed thoughtful, objective, and useful content can stand toe-to-toe with the New York Times, The Washington Journal, Fast Company, and The Wall Street Journal.
Prior to this smaller companies were outmatched by the robust SEO efforts, and social media followings of larger publications. But now that the technology and algorithms have matured the playing field continues to be leveled. If you can build a highly targeted audience and consistently provide them with great content that they will engage with you can out-engage social media powerhouses like Business Insider, Buzzfeed, and Elite Daily.
It’s important to understand Facebook’s news feed algorithm to get a better sense of the benefits here.
If you look at the big players on Facebook- Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, etc only a fraction of a percent of their audience engages with their individual posts on a daily basis. Yet because of their size, and their partnership with Facebook you always see their content.
Keep in mind these publishers are only engaging with a fraction of their audience. In fact, National Geographic is the only large publisher that connects in a meaningful way with its followers at scale. Now think about what would happen if your brand became a Facebook publisher that boasted an engagement metrics similar to National Geographic even as your following scaled- you would drive thousands of highly engaged visitors every month from Facebook alone. For free.
If you’re a company looking to go head to head with some larger players in your field, then content marketing is the cheapest way to quickly make your presence felt. By spending time creating high quality content for your niche you can begin to make massive budgets irrelevant. All you have to do is be better, and work smarter. If you combine this with a thoughtful SEO strategy, you'll be unstoppable.
Read more about how creating killer content can accelerate your marketing: How Unique Content Make Or Break Your SEO Strategy.
Why Quality Matters, Now and Forever
The internet has always been driven by content. Or as Lee Odden, CEO of Top Rank Marketing, puts it "content is the reason search began in the first place."
Since the beginning of the internet people have looked to compile, and access information. That demand birthed an entire industry dedicated to helping businesses and search engine users find content- search engine optimization (SEO).
From day one SEO has been plagued by spammers, and less than ethical marketers who’ve gamed the search engine results to help websites rank higher. Google, the world’s largest search engine with 3.5 billion searches daily, has been especially vigilant in reducing the amount of spam, and increasing the quality of its search results. Google developed its SiteRank algorithm as a way to measure a websites relevance. The more relevant, or authoritative, the site the higher all of the pages of that site would rank in search engine results pages (SERPs).
What began as an effective way to boost SEO rankings, content marketing has matured into an effective tool for generating thousands of inbound visits at low cost. Content marketing itself only came about as black hat SEO tactics were shutdown by Google and Bing’s ever improving search algorithms. The shift towards quality forced digital marketers to focus on the quality of the sites, reducing keyword stuffing, link bots, and other shady tactics, in order for them to rank.
From day one Matt Cutts, Google’s former head of web spam, made it very clear that the SiteRank algorithm was dedicated to improving the quality of its search results. As such it would actively promote those websites that were able to provide useful, easy to read, and highly relevant information to searchers.
So how do search engines begin to evaluate the quality of the pages they’ve crawled? Well it's based on hundreds of different criteria, but they can be broken down into four main categories:
1) Keyword Relevancy- does the content contain any keywords or phrases directly related to the search term?
2) Inbound Links- were other people linking to this domain? Well it must important and relevant?
3) Amount of content on the page- how many words, images, and videos are present? High value sites share a lot of content to educate, and inform.
4) Outbound Links- Is this page sharing useful information hosted on other sites that we know also share high quality content?
Google’s logic for this is simple: good content will always satisfy these quality requirements. Why? because by default good content is focused on a single topic, is linked to by other people who also find it good. Good is subjective but generally speaking the higher value content has depth- is interesting but easy to read, and also points to other useful content.
SiteRank has contributed to massive explosion of content on the internet, but also an explosion in the amount of people who turn to the internet to find useful information. In short, the better Google became at finding great information, the more people used Google to find information.
Marketers jumped on the opportunity to tap into the demand and pushed even harder to create more content. Even with this boom, Google estimates that even it's algorithm and crawlers will never be able to keep up with the amount of new search terms constantly being created. In fact millions of new search terms, and keywords are created daily.
This explosion is both good and bad.
On one hand it’s easier for consumers to find information related to their concerns, interests, or life stages. On the other the majority of that content isn’t very good, can be misleading, or worse- boring. This is where most content marketing strategies fail, they fail to produce any content that actually moves people to share and link to it. If people don’t share or link there is no awareness generated, and you’ve effectively wasted time and money.
For marketers, entrepreneurs, and brands there remains a lot of opportunity to inject their passion and domain expertise into content that generates real traffic, and revenue for their company. While SEO is incredibly important, having such a singular focus is why many content marketing initiatives fail.
SEO isn’t magic, it’s an acquisition channel just like anything else. Success in SEO can result in thousands of additional visits just social media platforms like Facebook, or Pinterest. Similar to other platforms, SEO requires hard work to identify the keyword opportunities, develop kick-ass content, and create the links.
That hard work can also be leveraged to create earned media, generate authority both of which feedback into SEO. Great content will generate SEO results to create the sort of awareness (in search engines) that really grows companies.
For the smart and dedicated marketers, content is a powerful and cheap way to generate earned media, and authority in your niche. By distributing this content you can create a feedback loop for your SEO keyword focused content. Since your content is constantly being discovered it will greatly increase the chances of it being linked to again, or and the readers will find it of higher authority because of it's position.
Why do long-tail keywords matter?
Long-tail keywords are very specific search terms that have lower search volume (and demand), but are also less competitive. They have the added benefit of being highly relevant to a searcher's specific needs. For example if a short-tail keyword might be "boots" or "leather boots", then a long-tail keyword might be "brown leather boots 2016" or "Steve madden leather boot outfit". In either case the chances that your website will rank higher for the latter terms is way more likely than former. In the former you'll be competing against established retailers who spend millions on SEO.
Often-times the more an article, or page, the more likely it will resonate with a reader because it speaks directly to their specific interests. In the case of our long-tail leather boots we know that someone searching for "brown leather boots 2016" is either looking for trends, or looking to purchase. By creating a simple blog post with an affiliate link you can tap into that search demand. But if the content is really good they may go one step further than just clicking- a reader might go on to link to it, quote it in a presentation, share it with friends or colleagues in an email, cite it in a thesis, or share it across social media.
With long-tail keywords it's all about visibility. If you're able to rank on the first page of a less competitive search term it will increase your ability to capture a larger portion of that search demand, and inbound visitors will be more likely to engage with your content, offer, or email opt-in.
A study published by Moz shows that click through rates drop from 31% in the first position, down to 14% in the second and 9.85% in the third. By the time a searcher hits the second page the click through drops to 3.99%, and then to 1.60% on 3rd page. The first five results drive 67.60% of all organic search result click -throughs. In other words there’s no real point to trying to rank for competitive keywords unless you can rank on the first page.
It’s better to rank on the first page for a keyword that gets 2000 monthly searches than to be on the fifth page of a keyword that gets 20,000 searches. While the potential traffic difference may not be that significant, the difference in conversion rates will be enormous.
Ranking highly for a keyword it’s almost guaranteed that you will capture the majority of the demand for it. When that ranking is combined with strong content, people will take any of the following desired actions:
1) Sharing the content to social media and helping you generate even more traffic.
2) Journalists and influencers will link to it from their high authority sites helping to increase your domain authority, and rank even higher.
3) There are also stronger actions like having that person take a desired business action in the form of an email opt-in, a request for more information, or better yet an actual purchase.
By focusing on quality, and choosing stories that motivate readers to engage, anyone can quickly build organic traffic and audiences with even the tiniest budgets.
This seems like a lot of work just to get a few extra customers
You're right. This is a lot of work. But there are many benefits to content marketing outside of just acquiring customers. Brands who are able to execute consistently on content marketing at a high-level reap perks that are normally reserved for media companies. How?
There is so much demand for information that even large publishers struggle to keep up. As a publisher, your brand can generate a lot of karma (and site visits) by helping Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, Forbes, Inc, LinkedIn and industry specific outlets fulfill their insatiable need for content.
With a guest post, or as regular contributor, you can quickly raise the profile of your business. There is also the added benefit of generating back-links that your site will need in order to rank in search engine results pages. With time your brand can become a powerful authority in your niche just like some large media companies dominate news.
That niche influence and (relatively) large audience has many positive business outcomes. Similar to a traditional media company you can generate additional revenue from:
1) Native advertisements
2) Email list monetization
3) Social media account monetization- get paid for posts and shoutouts
These additional revenue streams are an easily attainable byproduct of thoughtful, well executed content marketing.
What Does “Great Content” look like?
Great content marketing works so well because it does the following:
1) Generate awareness and authentic connection- speaks to customers and influencers in your niche in ways that their minds can process.
2) Kick-starts SEO- Helps you rank in search engines.
3) Streamlines Growth Hacking- Creates an easy to replicate method for generating demand, capturing it, and developing additional growth hacks, products, or revenue streams based on the data, and information you can collect about your audience's behavior.
4) Is Strategic- Allows you to be an active player in the content revolution.
Before we go any further I want to share with you what great content is not. When we refer to great content, we're referring to something you would see from any respected publisher: information rich, balanced, and well written.
This is what many refer to as Godzilla content- it’s the kind of stuff that blows people’s minds because it’s jam packed with information and resources. The benefit isn't just for your readers, it makes outreach, link building, and social media distribution automatic. Because like any great product, Godzilla content sells itself. Your readers will do the marketing for you.
The following case studies illustrate how powerful content can be. In some cases these articles doubled or tripled the monthly visits. In the case of SmartAsset it led to partnerships with larger companies in their niche like LearnVest, FindTheBest, Yahoo Finance, and NextAdvisor.
The content published on DAEP | NYC helped launch a local events series, and generated so much new business that I no longer had time to focus on creating content for the digital magazine, I was too busy. This stuff really works.