What Content Can't Do

Whether you are already creating content or still debating the concept, make sure you pay close attention to content campaign promises – there are plenty of things that content can do, but an equal number of things it can’t.

Companies are understandably fixated on content’s return on investment, looking for a strong ROI on how content marketing will enhance sales or maybe even cut expenses. In response, consultants, agencies and marketing teams keep pulling together metrics and proposals promising hard returns. But expectations still aren’t being met on both sides, and I believe that’s due to a fundamental misunderstanding overall about what content can and can’t do.

Let’s clarify content’s role in a marketing plan so that everyone can agree on achievable goals. Once those are in place, your team can select the proper metrics to measure actual results instead of continually reaching for unachievable goals.

Content can create brand awareness and extend brand reach.

Look at Red Bull, a consumer-packaged-goods company that has restyled itself as a marketing engine. Red Bull sells two million copies of its monthly men’s lifestyle magazine, runs a YouTube channel with over four million subscribers, and owns the most-watched action sports network on television. Red Bull’s content has made it one of the most amped-up, coolest brands for its target demographic of 18-34-year-old men.

Content can generate leads.

Gated content is the perfect example of how content can play nice with lead generation and here’s a real opportunity for meaningful metrics. For example, it’s easy to measure number of customer touch points available, number of touch points engaged, number of emails gathered, number of downloads and even revenues generated by paywall content. There is a direct and measurable correlation between customer engagement and creating excellent content that your target market wants.  

Content can create customer trust.

My favorite example is Sift from King Arthur Flour. This high-value publication is for sale on newsstands and graces coffee tables of home bakers nationwide. King Arthur goes deep in this content, with recipes, technique and profiles of excellent bakers around the country. Customers recognize that King Arthur understands them and is the best go-to source for expert baking information.

Content can measure reach.

Digital metrics can track how many people open, read and share your content. This is a vast improvement over print, television, direct mail and billboard advertising, where you often have absolutely no idea. As an example, I worked with one publication that actually printed less than a quarter the number of pieces that it was promising advertisers.

Having pointed out content’s advantages, let’s now look at what it can’t do.

Content can’t sell stuff.

Content designed to sell is called “advertising.” If you are trying to directly sell product or services via content then you are hamstringing the true power of content – which is to create material that your target reader trusts. The minute a reader senses the hard sell, her credibility is shot and she’s out.

Content can’t close.

Even the best content, closely aligned with a sales funnel, can’t actually close a sale. Therefore, you can’t link sales directly to content. You can, however, link sales that your people close to a content pipeline that helped them develop that relationship.

Content can’t deliver a hard ROI.

I see so many promises on metrics, and sometimes those metrics do track real things like MQLs generated by content engagement. There are ways to track sales back to content engagement, but just know that those are still incomplete and can seem fuzzy. Because content is more powerful for branding than for sales, those numbers are not going to be hard and clean.

Obviously I love content marketing, and clearly it has proven itself more powerful than much traditional advertising and marketing. The metrics are indeed better. But just as any other marketing approach content marketing has its strengths and weaknesses. Just don’t be fooled by a bunch of campaign promises. 

Creating a Matchy-Matchy Social Feed

Social media content gives everyone a headache. We know that content for each channel should be personalized and distinct, but at the same time it should all promote the same core messaging. So, how is this even doable? The key is to tell the same story in multiple different ways.

It’s important to match the message to not just audience but also channel – so don’t make the common mistake of just pushing the exact same message out via LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. Just as you would personalize the message for your target audiences, you should also personalize by channel.

As long as it’s not too personalized. Here’s a classic case study for that:

DVM 360 is a website for veterinarians, and it’s full of great information for anyone running a vet practice. DVM 360 has actually won marketing awards for its content, which is shared primarily via the website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The company does a good job in each channel, in fact I would agree that it is award-worthy content, but the overall message is not working in synch to promote the brand messaging.

Let’s look at a day in the life of DVM 360’s content. This is the same day, with three different messages in three different channels.

  • Instagram: A photo of a cute kitty smartphone desktop stand.

  • Facebook: A post about a dangerous horse feed recall.

  • Company website: Feature story sharing “our worst mistakes that you can learn from.”

None of these are bad posts. They each showcase interesting and useful information for their target audience that is tailored to each channel – the Facebook message has a link to the company website; the Instagram image is kind of fun; and the web piece is good reading.

The problem is that there’s no overall cohesive story here. So, what happens if the client only follows the company on Instagram? DVM’s messaging on that channel is fun but not very deep. The client really has to follow all channels to receive a cohesive brand message.

Let’s look at a powerful alternative.

Each social media channel should have a channel-specific message that reinforces the brand’s core content. Set a goal for each channel based on its personality, demographic and strength. For example:

  • Facebook is a consistently powerful conversion channel, so Facebook messaging should always feature a link to drive readers to the website.

  • Instagram won’t even let you add a link to photo captions, so that messaging should focus on gorgeous images that reinforce the brand identity.

  • Twitter is great at creating community, so Twitter posts and chats should focus on shares or conversational topics designed to encourage engagement and participation.

Mainstream consumer magazines do this really well. Let’s look at an example from Bon Apetit. These are three different posts from the same day:

  • Facebook: Link to a feature story roundup of readers’ favorite recipes, leading with the image of a gorgeous radicchio salad;

  • Instagram: Same salad image, bigger and richer, with a note about summer recipes in the current issue;

  • Twitter: Image of a different salad with a snarky “sorry, not sorry” note about how yummy the salad dressing is.

One core message, three different posts. You can see that if the target customer only follows one channel – say she prefers Instagram because she is a visual person – she is still going to get the same messaging as that person who follows the brand on Twitter. Likewise, if a reader follows you on all three channels, they aren’t going to see the same repetitive post three times that day. Each post is different, but all of these links send readers to the same core story. This keeps the content for each channel personalized and distinct, but gets all social media channels working together for the same overall content goal.

The Secret to Non-Sucky Keywording

Writers love to hate Search Engine Optimization – that practice of inserting Google keywords or phrases in online text so the search bots can find and rank it. Even digi-savvy writers and editors complain that working in those keywords warps their copy and puts artificial demands on the story.

But the truth is that SEO, done correctly, can be a blog post or online article’s invisible best friend. SEO is the best way to connect meaningfully with readers who care about what you’ve written. I know, because I’ve seen SEO done well (our organic search rates rise by over 20% every month) and I’ve seen it be a disaster.

Old School SEO Sucks

I’ve been doing SEO writing for about 10 years for various types of companies publishing blogs, white papers and other online articles. Here’s how it usually works:

  1. Editor comes up with awkward long-tail keyword term that relates to a business product or service, like “employee long term care insurance.”

  2. Editor hands keyword to writer and says to write a story about it.

  3. Editor charges writer with following “SEO best practices” like including the keyword in the headline, subheds and at least 3% density in the story copy.

  4. Writer hands in awkward, hard to read story that keeps repeating “employee long term care insurance.”

  5. Editor runs story and hopes that companies in market for long term care insurance search on the phrase, find the story, read it, and buy this to add to their employee benefits.

  6. Readers who do find the story can’t slog through it and bail quickly.

If you are being forced to follow these SEO guidelines, I don’t blame you for hating it. I actually quit a great writing job a year ago for a well-known online outlet because they handed down these old school SEO rules. Even then I knew this process was dead.

Today’s SEO Reaches Eager Readers

When I started in magazine journalism, we fought each other on the newsstands. The cover image and headlines were our key weapons in dragging readers away from our competitors. The readers took a risk on our gorgeous covers, buying the magazine and hoping to find relevant stories inside.

Fortunately, that newsstand war game is also dead. Today’s SEO is the delivery channel that helps a writer’s brilliantly crafted story reach exactly the right people who want to read it. Readers don’t have to take a chance on buying an entire magazine (unless they want to) if they only want one important story.

Here’s how SEO works as a best practice:

  1. Editor uses SEMRush or Answer the Public to find out what questions and phrases readers are typing in to get information about donating household items, and comes up with a general story idea about how to keep donated clothes out of landfills.

  2. Editor assigns story (without keywords) to writer.

  3. Writer hands in great story with good research.

  4. Editor then uses Google AdWords keyword tool to come up with a long-tail keyword, “clothes to donate,” that best matches the story.

  5. Editor keywords the story, without forcing too much keyword density or artificial headlines and subheds.

  6. Editor publishes story, and everyone who searches on the keyword finds it and reads it.

  7. Google rewards the great user experience by showing the story to more searching readers.

In other words, we assign interesting stories our readers want to know about, and we keyword them after they come in. We don’t stuff the piece full of fake-sounding phrases. People who find the story enjoy a great read, not a mouthful of keywords. And they often click on other recommended stories afterwards.

Don’t Try to Game Google

One thing we’ve learned about modern keywording is that Google isn’t all that hung up on the exact keyword phrase. If you get most of the words of a long-tail term in the story a few times, in more or less the same order, Google will find you. 

The other reality is that while you may keyword a story intentionally with a specific phrase, Google may decide to present your story to readers based on an entirely different keyword set that it has organically decided upon (bots – there’s no controlling them). 

My advice? Don’t try to game the bots, and don’t overthink SEO. Google’s algorithm keeps changing to reward the user experience, and it will outsmart anyone who tries to play only to the numbers. Instead, search engines want us to create strong writing that engages readers. 

As an editor, I use SEO combined with digital tracking to see who is reading what, how much time they spent on the page, where they come from and where else they go. Armed with that information, I can build a better reader experience and forge a stronger connection. SEO gets me to a lot more readers, who are a lot more interested, than the newsstand ever did. That’s something that even old-school non-digital journalists strive for. 

Just Do It: Don't Overthink Your Content Strategy

There is a reason that Nike's “Just Do It” slogan has lasted over 26 years. The phrase brilliantly encapsulates both the encouragement and also the impatience of someone talking to an armchair athlete. Just get off your butt and get out there, the voice says. It doesn’t matter what activity you try, or what level your ability. Get off the couch and move toward the goal.

The same sentiment applies to so many other activities in life. Lately I’ve been using it for content strategy to push hesitant marketers up off the couch and into the game of content planning and curation. I’m not talking about creating the content, I’m talking about all the tracking, storage and measurement that comes afterwards.

There is a typical approach to content strategy that I see over and over. Let’s call the company Evergreen Industries. The marketing team at Evergreen is full of smart people. They want to put together a comprehensive marketing, measurement and curation strategy, and they’ve done their homework by reading about the different options and platforms available. And then, they freeze.

The team at Evergreen gets overwhelmed by the options and simply can’t pull together a plan that satisfies all stakeholders. Part of the problem is that content strategy is a moving target, always changing, always offering new, better options that people want to incorporate.

I worked alongside one team that tried for over a year to create a content strategy but never pulled it off. They were crippled by the fear that they would leave out a critical measurement metric, or overlook some flashy engagement tool that everyone else had. They didn’t have the courage to “Just Do It.”

Let me give you a little coaching advice: If you dither on the sidelines you are missing valuable learning opportunities. Know that you will certainly make mistakes, you will fall down and get bruises, and you will overlook or skip key parts of your training plan. But the sooner you can jump into the game, the faster you will ramp up the learning curve.

A few weeks ago I met with the CMO of a large B2B company, and she had her eye fixed firmly on the ball. As we talked, she sketched a rough “game plan” on the back of a scrap piece of paper.

She quickly jotted down the key elements the strategy should include, like channel options, key measurement metrics, alignment with the sales funnel and identifying gaps there, key SME bylines and a curation plan for repurposing archived content. We both looked down at the complex scribbles and long list of required elements.

“Of course, we wouldn’t do this all at once,” she said. “We’d pick two or three things to test and learn, and grow from there.”

In other words, Just Do It. I will be looking for this company to win the content marketing Olympics in a year or so because they have the confidence to jump in and get started, and the dedication to test and learn from new initiatives.

If your team is ready to get off the couch and start moving, here is a game plan for building an early-stage strategy. From this initial plan you can tweak and iterate to your heart’s content, adding an element here or there to personalize your plan based on the feedback it creates.

  1.  Measurement metrics: Experts advise starting with only 2-3 measurement metrics and building from there. This can be as simple as setting up your Google Analytics tracking to focus on the metrics that seem the most important to your business today – for example, email opens, response to Calls to Action (like downloads or comments), and social media shares. Once you have identified the content engagement process that leads to conversion, then you can tweak your metrics to track that process.
  2. Alignment with sales funnel: I have worked with teams that attack this problem from the content end of things, labeling content that seems to fit with different stages of the sales process. Instead, I recommend working backwards and identifying the actual content that prospects engage with before converting – for example, are they primarily downloading white papers or clicking on case studies? And which comes first? Once you’ve built that grid, you can identify gaps in content and also adjust your tracking metrics.
  3. Curation: Tagging is the best way to track archived content so that it can easily be used by key stakeholders including your sales force. I advise tags by type of content, industry, and key business solution featured. In addition, your Content Director should be familiar enough with the archives to pounce on any news-related opportunities to push existing content through social media channels.

Maybe you have your own ideas about an effective game plan, and you’ve been trying to pull together a workable strategy. My recommendation is to ignore words like “comprehensive,” or “inclusive” or “wide-ranging.” Sure, that’s the end game but everybody starts small. Just pick a few elements to focus on and get off the sidelines and into the game. Ditch the excuses and the fear, and Just Do It.