Episode 11: Content Marketing Reporting

Reporting on content marketing is harder than it sounds. You have to share the numbers, but you also need to craft a narrative around your work. Reporting is your chance to show what you’ve done, why you did it and what you learned along the way. For more on this and other content marketing topics, follow Devin on Twitter @devinemily.

You can listen right here, or on iTunesOvercast, or Spotify.

Jimmy is the marketing director at Animalz, an agency that provides high-end content marketing solutions to SaaS and tech companies.

Why the Best Content Happens Fast

There is no correlation between the time invested in content and the performance of that content. This is either the best thing about content marketing or the most frustrating. It just depends on how you look at it.

This is an imperfect but helpful idea. Sometimes, content requires a substantial time investment. Benchmark reports, ebooks, data analysis, etc., can’t be useful with significant research and editing. In this case, time invested correlates with quality but not necessarily performance.

Other times, no amount of additional time can turn an uninteresting idea into a compelling one. If the idea isn’t strong or isn’t well framed, that time is better spent on the next piece.

The best content is not driven by the manual labor of collecting statistics (although that might be involved) or the exertion of writing a lot (although you might do that too). The best content is simply framed in a way that makes you really want to learn the core insight of the piece.

Here’s an example from HR software maker CharlieHR: We tried unlimited holiday for three years. Here’s everything that went wrong.

Read the title. Now imagine if the post’s title were “What We Learned by Offering Unlimited Time Off.”

One title evokes the boredom of a content marketer tasked with writing an article about a startup’s abortive policy move. The other, a desire familiar to just about every startup founder, employee, and people-ops team member—liberalizing your vacation policy—and all the painful realizations that CharlieHR made as they experimented with actually bringing unlimited vacation time into being.

One title is generic; one title is clearly and deeply personal, with real candor. One title makes you want to read more; one title makes you want to do anything but.

Being personable and humble and transparent is a great way to frame content (when possible), but it’s far from the only way. The real key is to think about your post as a reader would—why would anyone who doesn’t already know you care to read what you have to say? Do you have unequaled experience that makes your perspective useful? Have you done more research on this topic than anyone else? Make all of that clear in the title.

Achieving a high-quality framing for your article doesn’t mean you can suddenly write posts in 10 minutes, but it does mean that you won’t need to struggle to make your post interesting or different anymore.

Content marketers tend to compensate for uninteresting angles by overwhelming their audience with data and information that readers just don’t need or care about.

CharlieHR needed to invest time in making the piece interesting and informative, but the piece succeeded based on the angle, not the word count.

So, to summarize: Content can perform well regardless of how long it took to create. The inverse is also true: Content can perform poorly even if you invest lots of time in it.

What should you do with that information? Here are a few takeaways:

  • Some great posts can be written really quickly because the idea or the format is strong.
  • Invest time up front in better ideas and more interesting angles. This, more than the actual content, will determine the performance of an article.
  • Don’t invest too much time writing and editing content about uninteresting ideas.
  • When a piece requires lots of time, research and data analysis, don’t shy away from it.

Try to find balance in your work. Some content deserves time and many iterations to achieve its potential. Other content can be streamlined to avoid wasted time. Don’t rely on one approach or the other; just make sure you understand the mechanisms that make each type successful.

Jimmy is the marketing director at Animalz, an agency that provides high-end content marketing solutions to SaaS and tech companies.

Episode 10: How to Think Like a Content Marketer

On our last episode, we discussed the lack of correlation between the time you put into a piece of content and the quality of that piece of content. On this episode, we discuss how great content marketers work through pieces such that they get the most possible quality out of their work in the shortest period of time necessary.

You can listen right here, or on iTunesOvercast, or Spotify.

Jimmy is the marketing director at Animalz, an agency that provides high-end content marketing solutions to SaaS and tech companies.

3 Challenges to Producing Great Content

For all the advice out there on “growing an audience” and “leveling up your content,” there’s precious little about the real-world hurdles of writing content that someone might actually want to read.

It’s hard to produce great content. Lightweight and uninteresting content can often be traced back to bad process or misaligned incentives. We’ll unpack a few trends that can get in the way of great work and offer some advice for righting the ship.

1. You’re Addicted to the Traffic Dopamine Hit

The surge of traffic that a new article generates can be addicting. So addicting that many companies never take their foot off the gas long enough to consider whether their strategy is actually working.

We’ve covered in detail the differences between a publication approach and a library approach to content (article, podcast), but we can sum it up here: Treating your blog like a publication results in too much content being produced. The cadence means that your content team can’t possibly maintain the quality and depth required to win traffic.

You might consider an aggressive editorial calendar to be a bold approach. We’d argue that it’s a hedge against your confidence in a real content strategy.

Domino’s Pizza CEO Patrick Doyle, who oversaw the company’s 90x stock price increase, says that overcoming loss aversion was key to the turnaround: “The pain of losing is twice the happiness of winning,” he argues, “so people tend to be cautious. But in spite of these huge risks, they pulled the trigger because everyone on the team believed it was the right move.”

In order to scale traffic, you have to let go of the traffic dopamine hit. Steady growth is unsexy. AdEspresso,one of the most successful content operations we’ve come across, grew organic traffic 9.79% per month for three years. That propelled the site from 84,000 pageviews in January 2015 to more than 10x that three years later.

Their strategy is all about driving organic growth, something that happens slowly. We recommend setting monthly traffic goals, forecasting the next few years, and then building a content strategy that gets you there.

Goal Actual
Jan 10,000 10,000
Feb 11,500 11,701
Mar 13,225 12,578
Apr 15,209 15,298
May 17,490 17,149
Jun 20,114 21,654
Jul 23,131 24,902
Aug 26,600 28,637
Sep 30,590 32,933
Oct 35,179 tbd
Nov 40,456 tbd
Dec 46,524 tbd

The simple act of checking in each month to see whether you’ve hit a very specific goal is a great way to make sure your work is focused on improving those numbers.

2. Content Isn’t Baked Into the Company Culture

If the content team works in a silo, lacks domain expertise, and is incentivized only to grow pageviews, quality will never improve.

To better understand this challenge, here’s a snippet from Ben Thompson’s The Curse of Culture:

Culture is not something that begets success, rather, it is a product of it. All companies start with the espoused beliefs and values of their founder(s), but until those beliefs and values are proven correct and successful they are open to debate and change. If, though, they lead to real sustained success, then those values and beliefs slip from the conscious to the unconscious, and it is this transformation that allows companies to maintain the “secret sauce” that drove their initial success even as they scale.

This framework makes perfect sense in the context of popular SaaS and tech blogs.

  • Leo Widrich and Joel Gascoigne were writing about Buffer on day one. They were transparent about the revenue and salaries. The blog took off, reinforcing the idea that sharing the company’s story is important. Content is now baked into their culture.
  • Intercom cofounder Des Traynor wrote 93 of the company’s first 100 blog posts. Writing was not something he did on the side; it was (and is) part of his job. And since it worked well, content is prioritized all around the company. Managers actually encourage developers, designers, and product folks to write. New hires expect to write. The content team facilitates the process, but every post is penned by someone with domain expertise. Content is baked deeply into the culture.
  • First Round Review handed the reins to an experienced professional, Camille Ricketts. The leadership team’s trust in her set the tone for anyone and everyone who touched First Round content. Even though she’s moved on, the content is still great, thanks to the imprint she left.

Building a content marketing culture is easiest when founders start blogging early on. Companies that start later tend to treat it differently. They’re more interested in quarterly projections and month-over-month growth. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but a sharp focus on metrics often leads to prioritizing short-term tactics instead of long-term strategies. It’s not a matter of bad intentions, just misaligned incentives.

Regardless of your current content culture, here are a few recommendations to make sure it’s still an effective marketing channel.

Make sure you have:

  • an experienced content marketing lead with total buy-in from leadership;
  • an explicit acknowledgment that it will take months or years to see a return;
  • an agreement on the key metrics you’ll measure;
  • a budget to hire or outsource content creation, with the understanding that quality isn’t cheap;
  • a keen focus on SEO—this is your leverage point; and
  • a clearly articulated content strategy.

The quality of the content you create improves quickly when the pressure to achieve a few short-term wins is alleviated.

3. People with Domain Expertise Aren’t Writing

This is the fundamental challenge of content marketing. The experienced engineer isn’t interested in writing, the thoughtful CEO has no time, and the designer isn’t sure anyone would care about her words.

When content that requires subject-matter expertise is tasked to someone without it, two things happen:

  1. Too much content gets produced. The lack of a solid content strategy and the absence of really great ideas to write about are compensated for with volume.
  2. Your content looks like everyone else’s content. Junior-level content marketers aren’t yet able to differentiate, so they mirror what successful sites do.

Nearly every company faces this challenge, and there are a few ways to handle it.

Facilitate Writing by Internal Subject-Matter Experts

This is the path chosen by one of the most well-respected content producers in the SaaS world: Intercom. Their content team is tasked primarily with helping the company’s developers, product managers, and salespeople write blog posts on the topics they know best.

As we wrote in our interview with Intercom editor Geoffrey Keating, when the writers are also the practitioners, your content immediately stands out.

Geoffrey admitted that this is a challenging way to grow a blog—hence our title for the post, How to Grow a Blog the Hard Way—but also noted that once his nonwriting colleagues contributed to the blog for the first time, they were often eager to do it again. Over the years, more than 200 people have contributed to the blog, and many of the posts have been smash hits.

If you choose to go this direction, Geoffrey suggests the following:

  • Ask contributors to write an elevator pitch, and then help them turn the idea into an outline.
  • Pin the elevator pitch to the top of the document where they’ll write so they’ll have a “North Star” to follow.
  • Don’t ask nonwriters to adopt your systems and processes. Make it as seamless as possible for them to contribute.
  • Schedule face-to-face meetings to discuss feedback on their work. Filling a doc with comments is overwhelming to someone who doesn’t write for a living.
  • When their post goes live, celebrate their work, and make sure the post gets shared around the company.

To be sure, this is a challenging approach. But as Intercom can attest, it works.

Find Your Own Source Material

If you’re a content marketer writing about topics that you don’t know intimately, you need to find ways to get your own source material. Without new and proprietary information, you’ll almost certainly end up regurgitating what others have already said.

There are two ways we suggest going about this:

  • Run experiments. This allows you to collect your own data and get hands-on experience doing the thing you’re teaching others how to do. An AdEspresso article—Buying Instagram Followers? Our Experiment Reveals The Truth…—is a perfect example of this strategy in action. (It works too; this post has been read more than 100,000 times.)
  • Interview experts. Find people who know a lot about the topics you’re covering, and then interview them. Ask specific questions and lots of follow-up questions. Don’t look just to “influencers”—try to find an author or a professor who is willing to chat. When it comes time to publish, weave their words into a narrative that is compelling for the reader you’re trying to reach.

Don’t settle for content that merely looks and feels like content—find ways to share substance.

Set a High Bar

Before you commit to a content strategy for 2019, ask yourself, “How can we produce more content that people will be genuinely interested in?” Content that achieves that will more easily rank in search and spread on social media.

Need a hand with ideas and execution? Contact us to set up a time to chat.

Jimmy is the marketing director at Animalz, an agency that provides high-end content marketing solutions to SaaS and tech companies.

Episode 9: Input vs. Quality

Is there a correlation between time invested in content and the performance of that content?

Often, the answer is “no.” Depending on how you look at it, this is either the best thing or the most frustrating thing about content marketing.

You can listen right here, or on iTunesOvercast, or Spotify.

Jimmy is the marketing director at Animalz, an agency that provides high-end content marketing solutions to SaaS and tech companies.