FEATURE 

Content is Finally King

Over the last eighteen months, writes Mark Edwards, two black-and-white creatures have emerged from Mountainview, California like a pair of movie monsters – and the effect on many websites was similar to that of Godzilla and King Kong rampaging through New York City or Tokyo, smashing stuff up.

By Mark Edwards

These monochromatic beasts were, of course, Google’s Panda and Penguin updates to their algorithm. Panda roared first, in February 2011 (going global two months later), and Penguin released its mighty squawk about a year later, in April 2012. These were the biggest changes to the Google algorithm for years – perhaps ever – and a lot of sites, who had strictly followed SEO best practice for years, were hit hard, plummeting down the rankings and shedding most of their traffic overnight.

Suddenly, all that link-building and emphasis on keywords and metadata, all those clever techniques to grab visitors, didn’t work anymore. And the websites that had built their traffic through other means – like word of mouth, or having a strong brand, for example – were laughing. (Not that websites can laugh, but you know what I mean.)

This is not an article about the technical aspects of SEO. It’s about something that is now called Content Marketing, the big buzzphrase of recent times among the kind of people whose job it is to get web traffic. It’s a startlingly simple concept but, like everything online, easy to get wrong. It’s also pleasingly easy to get right if you have – you guessed it – great content. But you also need to know how to get that content noticed. And that’s the clever part…

Content Marketing is, just like it says on the tin, marketing through content. It means using your unique content to spread the word about your product and pull people to your site. This means that publishers – for whom content is everything – should immediately have a head start.

In the past, it was all about ensuring that all that content – as much as possible – was published on your site so that Google would index it, so the keywords would pull in traffic from searches.

Now, the key to being big on Google is to not worry about being big on Google. Here are the three steps to being a great content marketer, and using what you already do best to grow your traffic – and your database, your subscriber numbers and your advertising revenue.

1. Create really awesome content

Pareto’s Law tells us that 20% of your content will pull in 80% of your traffic. So why are you bothering to create the 80% that underperforms? The secret is to concentrate on the 20% that will strike a chord with your potential customers. It makes much more sense to put a lot of effort into creating a few amazing pieces of content than to mass-produce tons of merely good content – this is one of the big differences between the pre- and post-Panda/Penguin worlds. Never mind the width, feel the quality.

So, creating a brilliant download, or infographic, or stunning feature article, will pay dividends – as long as you are confident it will connect with your audience. Think about your flagship content. For FHM, it’s their sexiest women poll. For Marketing Week, it might be their annual marketing salaries survey. You need to create content that is PR-worthy, that others will give a damn about.

When I was marketing director of studentbeans.com, a discount site for students, we used content to pull in users in order to get them to sign up to use our vouchers. Our biggest traffic draw was our annual student sex survey – and specifically a league table of which university’s students have the most sexual partners. It worked because it was perfect for the target audience, it had a competitive element, and was the kind of thing that people love to share and tell their friends about (see step 2 below).

Surveys are always great for PR, as long as you design them with headlines in mind. Downloads are great too – blueprints, resources, reports, guides… If it’s useful, compelling, funny or fascinating, it’s got a good chance of working. You need these chosen pieces of content to give you a tingle when you talk about them.

They don’t have to be huge productions either. Often, something that’s simple, that only takes a minute or two to read or watch (because video can be fantastic for content marketing) works better than something really elaborate. It’s also not worth putting loads of time and money into something unless you are certain your audience will love it. So you can test your ideas to your database or networks. Does it get lots of clicks? If so, there’s a great chance it will work.

I mentioned infographics, which are a great way of getting traffic. There is something about a really well-designed infographic that contains interesting information that is highly compelling and shareable. Design and aesthetics are much more important now than they were five years ago. Nobody wants to link to an ugly, dated site.

And if you get really stuck, create a list. People love lists!

2. Make it social

I’m sure you are sick of hearing about social media, especially social media marketing, but when it is used in conjunction with content marketing, this is where it can set your business on fire.

We all know that building a big list of followers and bombarding them with links to our products doesn’t work. (Well, we should all know that.) But Twitter and Facebook – or LinkedIn and Reddit and Stumbleupon, depending on your audience – are now more important than Google for spreading the news about your content. This is for two reasons:

a. The direct traffic from the big social networks can be huge

b. Google ranks content with lots of likes and tweets higher than it ranks content without social shares – so you get a double-whammy of goodness

I have heard this referred to as ‘like bait’ which is a pretty annoying term but also accurate. You need content that your audience will want to share on their social networks.

When people use Facebook or Twitter (or LinkedIn if you’re B2B) they are looking for social currency – stuff they can share with their friends and followers that will make them look good. People only share content that they think will improve their own standing – either because it improves their reputation as a taste-maker, or the person who is first to know, or because they need content to share and don’t have anything original to say. People don’t share stuff that is embarrassing or boring or dry. They won’t ‘like’ depressing content on Facebook either.

You need to make sure you have social buttons on your content. And you need to build your own network so you have a frontline of people to push your content out there. But most visits and shares will come from people outside your own network – or who were previously outside your network.

There is a whole other strategy involved in building followers and fans, but content marketing can play a part in this because it spreads the word about your brand.

3. Team up with other sites

Now is not the time to be precious about your content. Getting coverage on other sites is a vital part of content marketing.

Getting PR coverage from mass media has always been a great way to increase awareness of your brand and get new customers, but now there are huge networks of sites and blogs who could send you traffic. Here’s what you have to do:

a. Find relevant sites and blogs in your space with decent-sized audiences (these could include newspaper sites, though they are usually harder to get onto).

b. Establish good relationships with them. Content swaps are always good – especially now that the old ‘reciprocal link’ issue is not your major concern.

It’s worth putting a lot of time and energy into building relationships with other sites, and giving them plenty of notice about campaigns and content that you plan to produce.

For example, if you are creating a guide, they might want to push it out to their audience, or even co-brand it. Same with surveys – where you should always be aiming to get headlines and coverage. This is classic PR stuff, of course. But now you have the extra opportunities of accessing those third parties’ social media networks, where you will get more likes, more shares, etc, etc.

A great way to get coverage is to run profiles of big people in your space. For example, if you run a flattering profile piece about an expert or guru, they and their fans are likely to share it and link to it. So making connections with popular people in your space can work wonders. Guest blog posts can be fantastic too, as long as that blog has a large audience.

Every piece of content you create should be seeded out to other sites. There is no point in creating something great and leaving it to sit there, hoping others will find it – and that includes Google.

Golden rules of content marketing

1. Put most of your effort into creating a limited number of truly great pieces of content – this works better than a ‘spray and pray’ approach – but test ideas to your database or network first before investing time and money.

2. Make your content compelling, useful, funny – and ensure it looks great too.

3. Social sharing is absolutely vital. Make it easy to share, and make it shareable.

4. Work to build your own network but remember it’s the friends of friends who will really make a big difference.

5. Follow the old rules of PR – think about angles and headlines. Will anyone ‘give a shit’ about your content? Does it make you tingle?

6. Establish links with other sites and blogs, as long as they have a substantial audience.

7. Make sure you plan ahead so that you can get a big push across all your contacts and networks at the same time – this increases your chances of achieving critical mass and producing a true viral hit.