The Evolution of Content Marketing – An SEO View: The US Edition (Part 2)
We are back with the second part of our post “The Evolution of Content Marketing – An SEO View”, this time with our experts from the US. In the first part we asked 5 UK SEO experts for their opinions on a range of questions around the effects of content marketing on today’s SEO strategy. In this part we get the views from 5 experts in the US.
We would love to get your feedback in the comment section on anything you agree or disagree with from both interviews.
AJ Kohn: Aj is owner of BlindFiveYearold.com, an online marketing firm specializing in search. AJ combines a deep understanding of search marketing with a passion for product strategy and iterative product development, fusing design and user experience with quantitative analysis. A recognized thought leader, he is a Marketing Land curator and was a SEOMoz Search Engine Ranking Factors and Google News Ranking Factors panelist in 2011. Follow him on Twitter.
Nick Eubanks: Nick has been helping companies with their digital marketing since 2004. He is currently the V.P. of Digital Strategy at W.L. Snook & Associates, a digital asset holdings company. He has provided technology and marketing consulting to companies like Thomson Reuters, Morgan Stanley, Comcast, Exxon Mobil and many others. You can read more from Nick on his personal blog SEONick. Follow him on Twitter.
Paul May: Paul May is the CEO and co-founder of BuzzStream. Previously, Paul was the first employee at Support.com, helping grow the company through its IPO. Paul also helped build products and grow revenue at BMC, Tonic, Alterpoint, Wavebender, and Pluck. You can follow Paul on Twitter or Google Plus.
Toby Murdock: Toby is the CEO of Kapost, the leading provider of content marketing software. Toby also co-founded Qloud. Qloud is a social music service that allows users to share their musical identity and discover music from friends. Toby helped build Qloud up to 25M monthly uniques and then successfully sold the company. Prior to Qloud Toby worked at Ruckus and at AOL. Follow him on Twitter.
Selena Narayanasamy: Selena Narayanasamy is Director of Strategy Development at BlueGlass where she focuses on overseeing the campaigns and processes for both the organic search strategy team and social media strategy team. She is deeply involved in creating and developing organic search strategies for BlueGlass clients that integrate all areas of the online marketing landscape to help improve traffic, rankings and visibility in the SERPs. Follow her on Twitter.
Question 1: Content Marketing is nothing new, but it’s popularity has grown to incredible heights in in the SEO world over the past year
Why do you think this is?
AJ Kohn: I believe the biggest reason for this are the changes in Google’s algorithm over the last 18 months. It’s simply more and more difficult to gain productive traffic through link manipulation and shoddy content. Links increasingly must be earned and the only way to do that is to ‘show your work’. So traditional link builders are embracing content marketing as a means to an end. That often might not be the best approach but it certainly explains the popularity within the industry.
Nick Eubanks: I’m pretty sure it has to do with the massive shock wave that Penguin sent through the industry. Suddenly everyone was second guessing their link building strategies and looking for new, sustainable ways to clean up their link profile.
On top of that, I think our industry is full of autodidacts, people who pride themselves on self-learning and improvement. Content marketing is an obvious step in the right direction when it comes to positioning a brand or a product within the larger marketplace. We as digital marketers are becoming more intelligent with every test, algorithm update, and campaign success or failure, so it’s only natural that we begin to adopt more long-term strategies.
One driver is that as the web as a whole has become more crowded and more social, strategies that involve influencing real people (as opposed to search engines) become more effective.
Another is the continuing depreciation of automated techniques (as seen in the most recent Google Webmaster Guidelines updates).
Additionally, many effective internet advertising channels are auction-based (most notably Google Adwords). Now that they’ve been widely adopted and effectively managed, prices have risen and easy ROI is no longer present.
But the biggest driver is content marketing, when combined with great outreach, works. It improves SEO results, drives leads, and builds brands.
Toby Murdock: Google’s recent algorithm updates–particularly Panda and Penguin–are the biggest drivers of content marketing’s increasing importance. With these updates the traditional, more technical aspects of SEO–e.g. URL structure, meta-tagging, etc.–play a lesser role in search rank. What has replaced those technical drivers is content quality (and Google’s methods of detecting such quality). Due to these changes, marketers are realizing that they really must become “publishers” of quality content to succeed in search.
The SEO community is also realizing what traffic opportunities there are from beyond search, and again content is the key driver to success. With the rise of social media, marketers can gain lots of referral traffic if they create quality content that earns links.
In all seriousness, content marketing has always been there in SEO, just in different forms both on and off-site. I think the biggest shift came when the convergence of true marketing and SEO happened in a way that was more public to outsiders and I think it’s being viewed more as a holistic, long-term strategy rather than a “tactic” like it was in the past. Search really spans across multiple channels and is extremely important for all aspects the user experience, and content marketing is just one platform/strategy of many in an overall plan. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that SEO has been evolving with marketing as a whole, and SEOs should really be well-rounded marketers and have skills in all different areas.
I also think with Panda and Penguin, content has become an extraordinarily large focus. Partially because of issues caused by on-site thin, low engagement content which leads to an overall low content performance ratio, and content always plays a part in the shift in linking strategies. The shift has been away from old tactics of inbound linking through content that gets no real engagement and has no real purpose (think: article directories) and instead shifting towards audience building on-site to encourage sharing and links, and building relationships through content on third party sites that link to you with real human engagement and social signals surrounding it. It’s something that was a long time a-coming.
Question 2: How big a role does content marketing have in your client’s SEO strategies?
AJ Kohn: It varies based on the client and their specific business model and needs. But, in general, it will always play a fairly large role. The question is often whether you’re optimizing or repurposing content that already exists (or is generated by community) or if you’re proactively creating content to fill gaps in your query intent graph.
Nick Eubanks: As an in-house guy, it certainly has affected my approach to long-term goals, especially how we measure their success – causing a fundamental shift in reporting. Performance indicators used to be rankings, traffic, links, etc.; what I’ll call the old-school of SEO. Now we are paying much greater attention to engagement metrics such as time on page, average pages per visit, and deeper engagement signals such as share by email or printing the page; both of which indicate the user found the information helpful enough to share with a colleague or save for later.
But the real challenge is to create great content, to be the thought leader for your sector, to produce blog posts and white papers and infographics and videos that your buyers see and say “Wow, that’s incredibly informative and incredibly entertaining! I’m going to both put this content to use and share it on my social network.” If you can succeed in doing that, you’ve done 90% of the work.
Selena Narayanasamy: It plays a very large role because it integrates with all other technical and strategic recommendations we make. Content has become an extremely strong extension and complement to existing campaigns and especially in the promotion of new and upcoming projects. We don’t necessarily break up parts of a campaign into individual segments, we bleed them together and set a timeline for outreach and social so they’re completely intertwined for maximum reach. That’s the only way to be truly effective with content integration and SEO.
Content plays an especially strong role in local strategies, where we’re able to identify weaknesses and opportunity from metro to metro. Content gives us the ability to hyper-target both on-site and off-site instead of using one blanket “catch all” strategy for an audience and also integrate those strategies in a way that works with an existing local infrastructure.
Question 3: Do you feel the inclusion of great content as part of an SEO strategy makes SEO a lot more expensive for business owners?
Developing a pattern of great content takes time and the benefits are somewhat cumulative in nature. In the beginning it’ll feel like the costs may outweigh the benefits but soon a type of compounding begins to take place. Too many give up to soon and never get to the point where it really begins to pay off.
Nick Eubanks: That’s a tricky one. Expense really only matters in 2 scenarios if you ask me, 1) the cost is prohibitive for the business, i.e. where an expense can mean reducing or eliminating other required operational costs, or 2) there is not a clear path to realize returns, or they are simply not significant enough to warrant the expense.
If content strategy/marketing is used correctly the benefits are exponential and returns can become self-sustaining.
Paul May: Yes. Part of this is SEO is no longer a stand-alone, ‘bolt on’ piece of a marketing strategy, but rather a guiding principle in an online strategy that combines outreach, content, design, and fundamentally fulfilling customer needs and desires.
Often companies already have a lot of content they can ‘unlock’ (webinars, white papers, ROI calculators, etc.) to lower the cost of their SEO effort, but it is a competitive discipline and requires an investment to get a return.
Toby Murdock: Has the price to stay at the top of the rankings for a given keyword gone up over the last 5 years. Yes, absolutely. It used to be you could succeed in search by best performing the technical tricks for your keyword. That is no longer the case. Now you have to create quality content, target influencers, earn links. This is more work.
But the rewards are also greater now than 5 years ago. The world is spending more time online. There are more visitors, more traffic to be won. This is particularly the case in major B2B purchase decisions where now much of the research takes place online.
Selena Narayanasamy: In reality, yes, it can be more expensive. If you’re creating a content strategy for yourself, it’s going to be expensive in one way or another – whether that’s spending time training somebody in-house, getting equipment or software for design and video, or the opportunity cost that comes with the actual time required to do it yourself as as a business owner.
When you’re working with an agency or consultant, it can be expensive as well, but I think great content within an SEO strategy isn’t all you’re paying for in that instance. You should be paying for the brains, support, creativity, the ability to reach pre-defined goals/metrics and yes, learning, that comes along with working with an external team. You should feel as if you’re learning throughout the whole process of working with an external team and opening up your creativity. The technical stuff usually doesn’t work that way. There’s a lot of learning involved on the client’s end and coordination with developers, but they’re usually willing to leave it in the hands of the agency/consultant for all the nitty gritty, whereas with content, it’s more engaging and fun on the client’s side to be involved. I think that hedges against the potential expenses that come with having a team create high quality content.
Question 4: As an SEO, what metrics do you use to define success of your content marketing strategy? or are those metrics just part of what you measure to determine the success of your SEO strategy?
AJ Kohn: It all really comes down to whether what you’re doing is driving productive traffic, however you might measure that for your own business. But there are some metrics I watch to see if a site/brand is gaining traction and to determine whether the content produced is hitting the mark.
One that I like is looking at modified branded traffic. Is the brand being associated with specific topics addressed through your content marketing efforts. For me it might mean looking at my name in conjunction with the term ‘authorship’. An increase in this modified branded traffic is a very positive sign in my book.
Nick Eubanks: When measuring the success of a content marketing campaign or strategy we pay attention to lifetime value metrics like new subscribers, customers, or brand advocates. Brand advocates are probably the most beneficial in my opinion (I realize that sounds crazy that I didn’t say customers) but honestly, a small army of people who champion your brand or products is likely to create droves more customers over the lifetime of your business than driving one-time sales in the short run.
Toby Murdock: In all of online marketing there are lots of upstream metrics that you can use as leading indicators: inbound links, retweets, email open rates. They are all important. You have to break down the process and drive success at every step.
But the ultimate measure of the success of all marketing must be revenue and the corresponding funnel metrics behind it (customers, opportunities, leads). Content marketing should be measured in this regard: how many leads / opportunities / customers did this asset or content campaign generate? It of course takes systems to produce this depth of measurement, but new systems–including the recent Marketo – Kapost integration–is making this level of analysis possible.
Selena Narayanasamy: We have multiple success metrics that change depending on the client’s goals and the industry- but the end result always comes down to increase in visibility, audience growth and traffic. For some clients, we measure success by lead generation or signups, and for some, we measure success by link generation, visibility and overall lift in the space. Sometimes our goal is purely audience building and engagement, and other times it’s highly ROI and revenue driven to tie into business goals. Our main goal is to help whomever we’re working with show value and be the internal champion of their company, so we work closely with defining metrics that will make a true impact within their organization.
Specifically focusing on rankings alone isn’t something we judge as a metric anymore unless it’s a specific performance based goal that was pre-defined- there are so many other metrics to look at for judging the success of a campaign, and each piece affects the site’s visibility and rankings in one way or another. Judging success by rankings alone is short-sighted and should be coupled with other goals and measurements as well.
Question 5: What are some great examples of companies doing amazing content marketing?
I like what Vans is doing on Instagram, what Modcloth does on YouTube, what GQ does on Tumblr, what Peugeot Panama and Birchbox does on Pinterest and what Cadbury UK and Burberry are doing on Google+.
What’s important in many of these examples is that they understand that they must deliver content in the right medium. That’s how they reach their customers.
In a few of cases they’re also curating the content of others. This is an overlooked way to extend your content strategy and good for those who feel like they don’t have the assets or resources to produce content on a consistent basis.
Finally, I love that Burberry is mixing media formats, posting YouTube videos and using music as a way to connect with their users.
– Tyler Tervooren of http://advancedriskology.com
– Buffer’s Blog http://blog.bufferapp.com/
– Patagonia with http://www.patagonia.com/us/footprint/
Paul May: Wistia has some excellent resources about creating business videos over on their site. We’re not a customer (yet), but we learn a ton about how to make great videos from their team, so once we’re looking for a stronger video hosting solution, I know who we’ll go with.
BlueGlass does some amazing content marketing – they really practice what they preach. I’ve been very impressed by their work.
I always learn something whenever I read Velocity Partners’ content – they use content marketing to market b2b, but the quality of the copywriting and the design is so high, it takes it to another level. I learn something every time I go to their site.
For the end of the funnel/beginning of customer adoption content, I love the training materials Axure provides. They help people get exactly what they need to use a complex product.
Toby Murdock: I think that Jon Miller is the mad scientist of digital marketing, or, to put it another way: he is determined to make a science out of the chaos that marketing has been, and he expresses very articulately a vision for how to do so. In essence he argues that in the digital world, every click can be measured, so what once was the black box at the top of the funnel can be measured with the same precision that a good sales operation employs.
So I would point to this video with Jon and Ann Handley talking about content marketing and Jon’s overall vision for the science of marketing. All successful marketing in the future must be aligned with this vision. It is my personal ambition to apply his “science” vision to the particular world of content marketing.
I also think that Michael Brenner of SAP is a very articulate voice about content marketing on his B2B Marketing Insider blog. I’d particularly recommend his Search, Social and Content: The Keys to Inbound Marketing and The Biggest Challenge in Content Marketing posts.
Lastly I think my posts How to Build and Operate a Content Marketing Machine and Top 10 Problems that Marketers Face in Building a Content Operation are favorites too.
Selena Narayanasamy: I’m a competitive intelligence junkie (almost stalkerish… OK, really stalkerish. I like being creepy…. bwahahaha ) so I love this one by Beth Hayden: Become a Content Marketing Secret Agent with Competitive Intelligence
I like when people take a unique spin on things -> 11 Ways to Use SlideShare for Content Marketing Success
And this one from Kevin Gibbons was great because it ties into what I was saying before- content is a strategy and not a tactic: Why Content Marketing is a Great SEO Strategy, Not a Short-Term Tactic
A massive thanks to all our US experts for contributing to this post
If you are starting to build a content marketing strategy for your business, why not check out our ebook – How you can Build and Operate a Content Marketing Machine for your business.