This entry is a guest post by Glen Dimaandal, the Online Marketing Manager at Emerson Network Power, a business platform of Emerson Electric Co. He is also the founder and CEO of GlenDemands Inc, a Philippine-based SEO and Content Consulting firm.
By now, we’ve all come to terms with the fact that it’s practically impossible to succeed in SEO without having great content. After the Panda, Penguin, and anti-guest blogging initiatives from Google depleted the proverbial SEO bag of tricks, a lot of us were compelled to take a hard look at the campaigns we were running and the tactics that we were using.
Moving up on the SERPs has become a lot more complex than just publishing keyword-laced pages and boosting them with backlinks. I believe we’ve entered the age when SEO has become a “battle of the creative,” as SEO master Benj Arriola puts it.
At some point, you realize that doing SEO without legitimate and compelling content is a battle you just can’t win. For every unnatural link scheme that you can come up with, there’s a room full of smart people in the Googleplex thinking of ways to counter it.
This is the reason that every reasonable mind in the SEO industry has decided that it makes more long-term sense to play by Google’s rules than to try and game the system. If you want to succeed in Google and you plan on doing it the right way, everything starts with developing the appropriate content strategy for the audience that you want to reach.
Keywords or Intent? What’s Your Content Strategy’s Basis?
Like all other human actions in the physical world, the behavior of traffic in the Internet is driven by needs and wants. When we start acting on ways to go after those needs and wants, we start showing intent. The concept of intent is very important when you’re trying to develop attractive, shareable and linkable content assets for your website.
Without understanding what your target audience’s intents are, it will be very hard to develop targeted content that boosts your ultimate performance indicator: revenue. The solution, of course, is to make audience intent the primary consideration when developing a content strategy.
This sounds like a fairly straightforward idea and I know everyone likes to think they’re creating content for the benefit of their audience. Here’s a reality check, though: how many of us are using keywords as the main basis for the content we produce? Does the diagram below look like something that you’re currently doing?
Are you still following keyword-driven content strategies?
Now, I’m not going to say that this traditional approach to content creation and optimization doesn’t work. It worked well several years ago and there are still cases where it still works today.
However, building content based on hot keywords doesn’t necessarily mean that the end product (content assets) respond directly to your audience’s intent. If you’re still using keywords to guide content development efforts, consider the following points:
- What does this do to build your brand identity?
- If you end up ranking high for these keywords, will it bring in the kind of people whom you want to consume your content?
- How do your content assets and the traffic they bring in serve your overall business goals?
If you can’t deliver definitive answers off the top of your head as you read the questions above, it’s probably time to take a long, hard look at your content strategy. Engagement and sharing signals have become important synergies to a site’s performance in Google’s SERPs.
As such, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll have better and more sustainable SEO success if you develop content with audience intent as the main consideration.
Developing Your Content Strategy
During the past five years, I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some really smart people who knew how to create content the right way.
Like other SEOs, I was initially focused on keywords, rankings and traffic figures because those were the areas I thought I could help the business best. Of course, I was only half-right. It was fortunate that I had mentors who educated me on the value of seeing the bigger picture and matching the content we created with the actual intent of our customers.
I was taught a fairly simple model that allowed us to create great content assets that performed well on Google and even better in the minds of our audience. The cool thing about this approach is that you don’t need to have Fortune 500-type of resources to pull it off.
A content strategy that engages users, attracts links and converts traffic into business leads can be crafted by just one person who has a good understanding of his or her market. Outlined below are the exact steps that my team and I have used to serve top-tier US enterprises such as Emerson Electric Co. and the Brady Corporation:
1. Understand the Website’s Brand Identity
According to Brick Marketing, a brand is the idea or image of a specific product or service that consumers connect with by identifying the name, logo, slogan, or design of the company who owns the idea or image.
In short, it’s the persona that a business sets for its offerings so it can differentiate them from generic or competing products or services in the market.
It’s very important for you, as an SEO or a content creator to fully understand the branding of your employer or your client. The brand’s spirit should be palpable in every asset you create for public consumption.
The writing style, the visual design and the themes of your content are all important elements where branding can be infused. When trying to understand a website’s business and brand identity, you can look at the following areas to get a quick feel of what you have on your hands:
A high-level view of your brand identity
If you’re not familiar with the terms, here are some quick definitions:
- Value Proposition – In sales and marketing, this is a statement that sums up the reasons why a consumer should buy a product or use a service. Whether the offering addresses needs or wants, the value proposition must be very clear so the prospective buyer understands what he or she is about to pay for.
- Revenue Model – This is the way a website makes money. Whether it’s through direct sales, commissions or ad space rentals, a revenue model is a formative element of a site’s branding. Consumers may not always be aware of it, but marketers should have the revenue model in mind when setting the direction of their content strategies.
- Personality – Is the website’s tone formal or is it more casual? Does its visual design suggest a more businesslike environment or a more social one? The words that you choose, the manner of message delivery, along with the look and feel of your website will ultimately dictate its personality.
- Target Audience – Your products or services were made to address needs and wants. Therefore, the essence of your branding hinges on the very nature of your offerings. This nature was a direct product of the market’s demands. Therefore, who your target audience is – along with their needs and wants – is infinitely tied to how you package your brand. If the branding is spot on, your products will be easy to remember and they’ll resonate with the needs and wants of your audience. If the branding is off, you’ll have low recall value and association with the market’s demands.
Usually, you’ll be able to get this information from your client or the most senior members of the marketing team. As an exercise, let’s analyze an example of great branding at work:
King of Branding: Apple’s brand is unique, consistent and oozing with personality
Apple has the world’s strongest brand and it’s very easy to see how the four elements described above constitute their brand identity. Their value proposition is top-level quality consumer electronics at premium prices. The price count deters the low-income consumers but it creates a sense of exclusivity and rarity that most people seek.
The revenue model they follow is broad: you can go to a shop or you can buy online. The brand’s personality is omnipresent in their product designs, the look and feel of their website, and even their market messaging.
Everything is chic, slick, smart and upscale.
Finally, Apple knows that the people who can afford their products come from the middle class and up. They bank on making their prospects feel smart and stylish because they know that it’s how people from those backgrounds want to be perceived.
2. Get to Know Your Target Audience
Getting as vivid a profile as possible on your target audience is essential in putting together the kind of content that will resonate best with them. The information you have will help you predict their interests, behavior and buying motives. When we try to profile our target audience, we often use the following qualifiers:
- Job title
- Company size
- Sites and blogs that they visit
Of course, you don’t have to use all of these all the time. Just plug them in as filters whenever appropriate to zero in on the right people. Doing so allows you to map and limit the topics that you need to cover. It also makes your spending on ads and promotions that much more efficient.
When identifying the appropriate target audience qualifiers, it helps to have the right people do it with you. Larger organizations may want product managers, sales agents and marketing team members to collaborate on this. In smaller businesses, having the site owner discuss this with you will help you a lot.
The key is having the people closest to the prototypical customer paint an image of their ideal prospects with as much detail as possible.
Alienware isn’t the biggest PC brand, but its audience selection is laser-targeted
A nice example of a brand that really understands its target audience is Dell’s gaming PC division, Alienware. Dell knows that the largest section of the laptop and desktop market is made up of users who just need basic functionality and a little versatility from their hardware.
Dell also knows that there’s a much smaller, but much more dedicated sector of the market that’s hooked to gaming. This market is made up mostly of males aged 18-35 who are passionate about technology and the performance of software on their gaming rigs.
Dell is aware that this audience buys hardware and accessories on a more rapid basis than the average consumer does. Hardcore PC gamers are also very willing to pay top dollar to stay on the bleeding edge of their hobby.
As a response, Alienware produces sleek, high-powered gaming PCs in low quantities, then sells them at premium prices. The design of the products is consistent with the look of the official website.
The tone of the copywriting has an attitude to it that gamers can’t help but gravitate to. Dell knows who its prospective buyers are and gives them exactly what they want in a way that they want it.
3. Understand Audience Pleasures and Pains
Marketing can be about a lot of things, but it’s mainly about two things: taking away the pains and increasing the pleasure of your customers. Pains come from unfulfilled needs while pleasure comes from the fulfillment of wants.
Every consumer action on the Web is fueled by the pursuit to satisfy needs and wants. Logically, making a convincing case that you can provide the answers for these pursuits will put you in a position to sell your products and services.
If you already have a product or service to sell, it’s probably safe to assume that your business has figured this part of the equation out. It’s your job as the SEO to fully grasp what your customer’s problems are and what the things are that make them happy.
From there, you can put yourself in their shoes, figure out what can address their needs and wants, then develop content that says it in a way that your audience can relate to.
Dan Sharp understood the pains of on-site optimization. He developed the Screaming frog SEO Spider to make the process faster and easier.
Take the Screaming Frog SEO Spider tool, for example. Creator Dan Sharp recognized that a common pain among SEOs was retrieving vital SEO-related information from the pages in the websites that they’re trying to optimize.
While Xenu’s Link Sleuth existed, it was prone to errors and limited in terms of functionality. There was a genuine demand to quickly and effectively diagnose a website’s SEO health and Screaming Frog addressed the need by being fast, reliable and comprehensive with the set of information that it delivers.
Screaming Frog doesn’t do heavy marketing nor does it engage in typical product hype jobs. Still, it’s an extremely popular product because it does two things right: it made our jobs easier and it delivered on every promise that it made.
As a result, it became one of the most highly recommended tools in the SEO market and it continuously earns valuable links and engagement signals for its website.
4. Map the Topics You Need to Cover
Scope and taxonomy are underrated qualities of well-optimized websites. How your pages are arranged and how topics flow cohesively from one page to another matters to both human readers and search engine algorithms.
Ideally, the pages of your website should be interrelated while staying close to a central theme. To that end, you should be very selective with the topics that you create content from and how you make them fit into your site’s overall strategy.
Does that sound complex? It’s really a lot easier when you actually do it. Here’s a real-life example: one of my clients offers guided tours of Italy to Americans who want to visit the lovely southern European country.
Every three months, we run a different content marketing campaign to promote the site. To that end, we use whitepapers, blog posts, videos and slide decks..
The first step is to find a theme for the three-month period. In this case, summer is fast approaching and we wanted to capture leads in the form of people who want to visit Italy from June to early September.
We decide to make summertime in Italy the central theme and we decided to develop a whitepaper called “Italy’s 12 Hottest Summer Secrets Revealed.” The whitepaper addresses the need to know more about the country’s lesser-known tourist attractions. It also features rare tips on how American tourists can save on expenses, avoid incidents and make best use of their time while they’re in the country.
The thematic content marketing campaign model
We’re aware that the whitepaper won’t promote itself and we don’t expect every visitor to download it in exchange for email addresses. We address the promotional requirements by publishing 18 blog posts, six SlideShare decks and six videos over the three-month campaign period.
All of these assets talk about topics related to the central theme and they all have calls to action that try to direct the audience towards our whitepaper landing page. In the case of the summertime campaign, the blogs, decks and videos were all about places, people, events, food and traditions that Americans should experience in Italy during the warm months.
At the end of the campaign period, we expect to build a solid mailing list that can be leveraged for several purposes. The list can be offered more content and occasionally, we can send them offers that they might be interested in.
There are a lot of ways to map and structure topics that you need to cover. The key is tailor-fitting the structure to the intent of the people that you want to attract.
5. Write the Content
Well-researched, grammatically correct and stylistically sound writing are skills that we’ve come to expect from copywriters and editors.
A good writer can read facts, structure them into a clever piece and use a hook to help the composition provoke reader attention. A great writer does all of this and takes the time and initiative to understand what the audience’s intent is so he or she caters to it while staying true to your branding and intended messaging.
When choosing a writer who’ll put in the legwork into content development, go with someone who exerts emotional labor into what he does. I’ve learned through experience that in-house writers generally work better because they have a sense of ownership on the things they write about.
They’re more aware of a company’s culture and they usually have a deeper understanding of the target audience’s nature. In-house writers also tend to grow as the business grows. They usually carry the things they learned from one project to the next.
This may also be the reason why it’s hard to capture magical work from freelancers; the one-and-done nature of contractual labor diminishes the need for the writer to put his soul into the piece he’s composing.
Last tip: big companies tend to use two writers at most to write key content pieces that will be used in high-profile campaigns. Fewer heads increases consistency in messaging and minimizes stylistic disparity between content assets. The end product is usually content that has a uniform voice and a clear message delivered to the reader.
6. Plan the User Experience
Human behavior is an unpredictable thing. Even when people are looking for closely-related information, their intents can vary widely. This results in a wide range of possible outcomes that may not necessarily end with the fulfilment of your call to action.
As a marketer, you’ll want to engage the user, address his intent and streamline his experience towards your conversion goals.
That’s easier said than done, though. In order to meet a user at his point of intent, you’ll have to anticipate how he thinks and what he plans to do. Being aware of the possible intents and browsing habits of your audience allows you to set up an intuitive environment that helps them find your content with ease.
Toys R Us is a nice example of a site that anticipates the intents of its visitors. The site offers a “Shop By” feature where you can navigate toys according to the child’s gender, the age range, characters, brands, etc. Toys R Us recognizes that its products may be for children but its shoppers are mostly adults trying to figure out what to get their kids.
Toys R Us has a handy navigation that anticipates most shopper intents
In EmersonNetworkPower.com, the site for Emerson Electric’s IT manufacturing business, we implemented a similar strategy. We recognize that we have a diverse set of visitors with varying intents. We are regularly visited by Chief Information Officers (CIOs), IT managers, data center managers, computer engineers, IT consultants and more.
Though our product portfolio hasn’t changed much in the past two years, our content constantly evolves to accommodate the intents of these members of our audience.
We recognize that CIOs are more interested in thought leadership-type of content and not so much on product specifications. We also know that IT managers and engineers tend to be more interested in technical details, so we tailor product and support pages for them.
In the screenshot below, you’ll see the different sections that we’ve built to accommodate people who work in the same facilities but expect different content types from us:
For CIOs and other senior IT decision makers, our support section was populated by thought leadership content
IT engineers and technicians will find content they’ll appreciate in our product pages
7. Use Analytics to refine the Campaign
It takes a lot of time, effort and resources to put together and execute a content strategy. You owe it to yourself (and your client) to find out whether it was a monumental success or a monumental failure. Analytics and other signals allow you to do that. You not only get to know whether you won or lost; you also get important clues on where you can do better next time.
When assessing how well your content assets performed, there’s no single, definitive metric that will tell you everything you need to know about your content’s effectiveness.
In the big organizations that I’ve worked for, we like to keep our metrics simple but multi-faceted. Listed below are the things that we track to get evaluate the performance of our content strategy:
- Bounce Rate – Described by analytics guru Avinash Kaushik as “the sexiest metric ever,” the bounce rate is the simplest and most telling metric for content engagement. A bounce happens when a user loads a page, finds it irrelevant and goes away without interacting with the page at all. The bounce rate, therefore, is the ratio of bounces versus the number of visits to your webpage or website.Of course, your content is only one factor that may contribute to a bounce. Lousy traffic sources or mistargeted ads can send traffic that’s difficult to engage even when your content strategy is spot on. The best way for you to examine the bounce rate is to do it in a page-by-page basis, then check the traffic sources to see which ones are sending in the most qualified traffic for your content.
Egad! Pinterest may be this site’s leading traffic referrer but if most of it are bounces, it’s not a very good source.
- Time on Page – Another simple but very telling metric is the average time that users spend on a particular page. For critical content pieces, we actually ask at least three people to read the pages and compute how much time they spend on it. The closer the average time on page in Google Analytics is to the number we have, the better we feel about the level of engagement that we’re getting.
The reason we do this is because average time on page is a measure of central tendency that’s prone to skewing. It’s entirely possible to have a large segment of the visitors taking very long to consume the content and another large section staying very short periods. The average can be computed, of course, but it may not necessarily be the best indicator of central tendency in this particular case. Bottom line; this is a nice metric but it’s not the be-all and end-all of engagement KPIs.
- Comments – While comments don’t have a direct impact on traffic, link acquisition and social sharing, the quantity and quality of comments you get is indicative of how much mind share you content is generating.
As defined by Investopedia, mind share is “the amount consumer awareness or popularity surrounding a particular product. It refers to consumer’s perception of particular brands or products compared to their rivals.” When consumers of your content take the time to think of something meaningful, complimentary or critical about your content, it means that your messaging came through and had an effect on them.Make commenting as easy as possible for your audience without exposing yourself to heavy spamming. Moderated comments and Facebook commenting are easy options to set up and they’re easy to use for most people.
As legit as they come: Kaiserthesage.com’s comment sections are never dull
- Social Shares – Likes, tweets, +1s and pins are all signs of positive reception for your content assets. Not only do they indicate that your content is well-received, these actions also amplify the reach of your content to new people.
- Conversion Rate – At the end of the day, content strategies are motivated by the fulfilment of goals. A conversion happens when a user heeds a call to action in order to satisfy an intent. When a conversion happens, a website’s business goal is also fulfilled whether it’s a sale, a lead generated, a set number of ad impressions or an affiliate transaction. A conversion is the ultimate indicator of your content strategy’s effectiveness because it’s the final stage in most marketing funnels.
Conversion rate, therefore, is the ratio between the number of conversions versus the number of visits that a content asset attracts. In the United States, the average conversion rate for websites across all industries is about 2% according to Kaushik. He also says that really good direct marketers can hit conversion rates of up to 35%.
In the end, building a successful content strategy is not rocket science. More than anything, it’s an exercise in sincerity, market familiarity and common sense. As long as you keep your audience’s best interest in mind and organize your efforts in a neat process, there’s no reason why you can’t produce content like a premiere brand.