Dr. Fio Dossetto, editor-in-chief of contentfolks and former Senior Editor at Hotjar, talks through "product-led" content, writing search content without becoming a copycat, and levelling-up your career by thinking less like a writer, and more like a strategist.
- Dr. Fio Dossetto is the editor-in-chief of contentfolks, and the former Senior Editor at Hotjar.
- Ryan Law is the Director of Marketing for Animalz, an agency that delivers high-quality content marketing to enterprise companies, startups, and VC firms.
Mentioned in the Episode
- Fio's newsletter, contentfolks
- Fio's talk for Wynter: Product-LED Content: A Powerful (& Under-utilized) Approach to Content
- Examples of product-led content
- Ahrefs' free course, Blogging for Business
- Animalz's article, Copycat Content: SEO Tools Got Us Here, Humans Will Get Us Out
- Animalz's article, You’re a Content Marketer, Not a Writer
Listen to the episode above, or check it out in your favorite podcast app.
2:13 - How to create product-led content
"When you're watching a movie, there are different levels product placement. You can have a product there, sitting in the background, being barely noticed...or you can have a fundamental plot point revolve around a product.
"For example, let's talk about Kitchen Aide food processors. You can set the scene in a kitchen and there's a food processor there on the shelf, and maybe you notice it if you're paying attention to the background, but it's sort of forgettable. Or, there could be a scene where the character suddenly has to feed 10 people in two hours, and the Kitchen Aide is the way they're going to do it. And there's a whole montage of how you can use the Kitchen Aide to do that.
"These are two very different approaches to showcasing a product. And, the same is true for content. On one hand you can have your traditional guides and blog posts that solve a problem, but kind of keep the product in the background. Maybe there's an ad mention or a link to the product, but you have no lasting impression of either the company or the product.
"And on the other end of the spectrum you've got product led content, which is more like your second example where the product is front and center, and it's actively used to illustrate a point, show the reader how to do something that relates to the specific goal they came to your website for in the first place."
25:27 - How to avoid copycat content
"I think a lot of SEO content, or keyword based content, gets a bad rap because a lot of it is written to rank. That's it, as in ranking is the end goal and compound traffic is the end goal. And there is zero attention to everything else, like creating authority, or showcasing expertise, attracting back links, creating an audience, you name it. And I think this is the main problem. This inevitably leads to everything looking the same. So, it's a vicious cycle.
"This is where you have the problem of copycat content. Now, what you do then, I think, you've now covered your bases. And now, it's about figuring out how to cover that topic for your audience with your business goal in mind. And that can look very differently depending on who you are, and who you're talking to.
"So, what do you want to say? What does your company believe in relation to this topic? What does your audience think? Et cetera. You can bring in controversial angles, or your unique take. I think you called them the earned secrets, or the things that are uniquely yours by virtue. Being there, done that, and having learned some stuff.
35:04 - How to level-up from "writer" to "strategist"
"A lot of the time content marketers tend to think in terms of tactics before taking a step back and starting from a strategic approach to understanding the problem that content will solve for the audience, which in some cases is a blog post, and some cases is Clubhouse, and in some cases it's something else entirely. But that piece is often missing, and my reflection was the way that I grew as a content marketer.
"So, going from being a writer to being a more strategic person was actually stopping this jumping on tactics and deciding that everything must be a blog, and starting to ask specific and targeted business questions about the problems we were facing or the goals we wanted to achieve, and how content play a part in the larger machine of the business. Which is not something you're trained to do necessarily as a content writer when you start out."
43:57 - How content marketers shape language
"I just realized there and then that I was using some seriously aggressive language to communicate a sense of success and achievement...destroying the competition, or having the sales team on the front lines. This is a war metaphor, and I think actually when we're talking about being a tactician versus being a strategist, a lot of good books about strategy actually are about the strategy of war.
"'What if we replaced all our business metaphors with the idea of the playground rather than the battlefield?' When you think about it, then everything you do is less about a zero sum game where it's either you or the competition, versus a playground where everybody can enjoy and experiment and play with mud, and get dirty. And just build a better ecosystem.
"I thought it was a really interesting way of framing it. The metaphors you live by do tend to shape your life in ways you may not be aware of until you find yourself talking about pizza on a podcast because you just never really thought about the words you were using the kind of impact they can have."
In this episode, I chat with Dr. Fio Dossetto. Fio publishes the wonderful newsletter, Content Folks, which about half of the Animalz team is subscribed to. She was the Senior Editor at Hotjar, and we crossed paths again recently where we both presented at the Wynter games. Talking through the topic of content marketing that stands out, and we covered a lot. We talked through product led content, which is the strategy Fio developed at Hotjar to make sure that every single blog post played a key role in generating new business. How Fio writes keyword led content that isn't just a carbon copy of everything else that's already out there. And how content marketers can level up their careers by thinking less like a writer and more like a strategist.
I'm with you here, Fio. The last time we interacted was actually at a conference talk hosted by Pep over at Wynter. And the talk you gave I majorly want to talk to you in more detail about it, wax, lyrical about the topic because I think it probably hits on maybe the most important problem in content marketing, which is spending hours and hours, all this beautiful writing, all this really hard work and it not actually having impact on the business. Whether it's product signups or free trials, or revenue with customers, whatever matters.
And the topic you talked about, product led content, I think is the perfect solution to that. So, without giving the game away, Fio what is product led content?
All right, so you're right. We met at the conference, and it was easy to do back then because I was speaking over slides. And it's very easy to talk about product led content when you can also immediately show what it is. On a podcast it's slightly trickier. So, I was thinking about the best way to talk about product led content here is to come to it by way of a metaphor. So, we're going to talk about movies for a second, if you don't mind.
So, when you're watching a movie, there are different levels of let's call it product placement. You can have a product there, sitting in the background, being barely noticed. You can have a character mention it in passing, or you can have a fundamental plot point revolve around a product.
For example, let's, I don't know, I'm into cooking. So, let's talk about Kitchen Aide food processors. You can set the scene in a kitchen and there's a food processor there on the shelf, and maybe you notice it if you're paying attention to the background, but it's sort of forgettable. Or, there could be a scene where the character suddenly has to feed 10 people in two hours, and the Kitchen Aide is the way they're going to do it. And there's a whole montage of how you can use the Kitchen Aide to do that.
So, these are two very different approaches to showcasing a product. And, the same is true for content. So, on one hand you can have your traditional guides and blog posts that solve a problem, but kind of keep the product in the background. Maybe the ad mention or a link to the product, but you have no lasting impression of either the company or the product. And on the other end of the spectrum you've got product led content, which is more like your second example where the product is front and center, and it's actively used to illustrate a point, show the reader how to do something that relates to the specific goal they came to your website for in the first place.
And you can see, if you then have visual cue to what the product is and what it looks like in action. And you can maybe even imagine yourself in the same situation using it. So, that's how we define it on a podcast when we have no slides to show the actual difference between the two types of content.
With that example there, I imagine if you're the CEO of, was it Kitchen Aide? Kitchen Aide mixers-
Nice sponsored link maybe. I guess you're probably going to be much happier with the full blown product placement where you're actually demonstrating the value of the product, getting people excited for different ways to use it, as opposed to the quiet reference, which could easily be glossed over.
I imagine that's much the same with a blog post as well, in terms of its ability to actually get people excited about the product being talked about.
Yeah, absolutely. And sometimes, I'm thinking of it in terms of you have a problem, you Google it, you land on a page, and you see this useful and thorough write up on how to solve it. Then, it's the conclusion and there is sort of this after thought mention of, "Oh by the way, we have a product that can help you do this." It's a very different feeling when you're landing on a page and you see the product woven into the page and you see screenshots. Maybe they're annotated, there's arrows, there's references, there's quick, small write ups. And you get to the bottom of the post and you feel like not only you know how to solve your problem, you know what product to use. You even know what it looks like already, so that's a very different experience for your reader.
As a content marketer as well, I can relate to that very viscerally because I remember probably the first few hundred articles I wrote, it was very easy to get to the final 10% of the article and suddenly realize, "I haven't actually mentioned the product that I'm meant to be selling here."
Yeah, and it's interesting because I think, and I have no basis for saying this, but 85% of the blog post I read do not take product led approach. And I'm always wondering why that is. I think sometimes it's possible that content teams are maybe scared of appearing too salesy or too pushy. For example, again in our movie example, there are certain scenes where a character, out of nowhere, completely mentions a Kitchen Aide. And you as a viewer, I think, "Hang on a second. This is not part of the narrative. What's going on?"
I think sometimes content marketers maybe are scared that if they add their product into the blog post, this is going to have the same effect, which I found it's actually not the case at all. So, yeah, I call it a very under utilized tactic because not many people are doing it, and I think the ones who are, are already in a position of advantage compared to the competition.
I think whether or not it feels salesy, that probably boils down to upstream problems, which is natural choice of topic in the first place because I imagine lots of the articles I used to write when you're thinking myopically about what has the most traffic, or what can I rack the most highly for? If you do try and label the product then, it does not work and it does feel salesy because you are trying to put the old square peg into the round hole-
[crosstalk 00:06:56] hammer the product in. I guess the way around that is actually being more selective over what you write, and choosing topics where you can naturally include the product because maybe the topic is about the product to begin with.
Yeah. So, when I was working at Hotjar I have a system to create product led content, and actually I will not create myself at all. I credit Ahrefs, the SEO tool, for coming up with it. They used what they call, I think, a business potential or a business impact score. And it's a score from zero to three that you can apply to every content idea that comes into your pipeline, whereby you give it a score of zero if there is, like you were just saying, no way to mention your product in a natural way unless you're really trying to force it in.
And, three, on the other end, is the entire narrative can hinge around a product. You can weave it in seamlessly because you're actively using the product to solve a problem, to demonstrate an action or something. So, at Hotjar I called it a Hotjar-ability Score, or the Hotjar-ability Factor. So, for every piece that came my way I used to ask how Hotjar-able is this on a scale from zero to three? Meaning, how much of the product can I show in action? How integral is the product to the solution of the problem? How can I showcase it in the best possible way?
Then, you will then naturally start gravitating towards your twos and your threes, and perhaps leave behind the zeros and the ones, which are the ones you are talking about where there is no real way to weave in the product. And you shouldn't, because otherwise it's just coming out as forced, and that's where it comes out, that's actually salesy and trying too hard because it's not a natural part of the story.
And even if you didn't create that framework, you did brand it, which I think is 80% of a marketer's job anyway. So, calling it Hotjar anything is a big tick in that column.
The Hotjar-ability Score. Again, I think Ahrefs deserve all the credits. But, in fairness, I've never thought about content like that before, and I watched one course, the course that Ahrefs created. I think it was called SEO For Beginners, SEO For Business, something like that. I think the business word was in it somehow, and that's where they presented the score. And they explained how their entire approach to content was organized around this central idea.
And it gave me the major ah-ha, light bulb moment because I realized that's a good way to do content that not only brings traffic back to you, but also can have a tangible impact on the business. You can demonstrate that via this content, not only you brought traffic, but actually somebody has converted or a customer has expanded their plan, or whichever metric for success you want to choose. And this is a really good way to do it with content marketing.
How would you think product led content relates back to the kind of classic, marketing funnel? Because I definitely... The consensus used to be that you only talk about product in bottom of the funnel articles. Anything before that point doesn't work. You shouldn't do it. People aren't ready for the hard sell. This sounds like it's kind of flipping that on its head a little bit.
Yeah, I think maybe it's a controversial opinion. I'm not sure. But I would say just forget about the funnel for a second, and think about what you're trying to do-
Oh, I love that.
So, yes, this content approach doesn't necessarily work with a traditional funnel in so far as this content can work both in the acquisition sense, and in the retention one. So, acquisition is when people have a problem or they're trying to find a solution and they get exposed to your product for the first time. And they see it in action, they can picture themselves using it, and that might eventually led to a signup. But at the same time, the way I like to think about it is this, just because somebody's already a customer doesn't mean they know 100% of your product functionality or they're using 100% of it.
So, this kind of content also helps somebody who's already a customer maybe discover new ways, or new avenues for using your product, which inevitably impacts their usage, and therefore retention versus churn. So, in that sense, the same piece of content can actually work for really different audiences, which again is a controversial thing to say, and I'm aware of it because we usually think of segmenting. You know, awareness stage, persuasion stage, retention, whatever. Whereas, I kind of think that the same piece of content here can work for a potential customer, a very new one, and also an existing one, if it's done properly, of course.
I love that as well, and it kind of speaks to the idea that, as marketers, we do have to do more than just get net new people to a website. You're thinking from our perspective, Animalz, the amount of new revenue that comes from upsell to our existing customers where we're making them happier and their accounts healthier. And yeah, content plays a huge part of that, especially with a really multifaceted product, for example, where there may be a dozen other use cases they've not considered, they haven't even entertained using before.
Yeah, exactly, and speaking from the perspective of Hotjar; Hotjar was, at the time, very much known for heat maps. But it turns out that if you use the survey and the feedback tools, there's a whole new set of use cases that you can actually use Hotjar for. And so, for example, you can use Hotjar to run customer satisfaction surveys or MPS score surveys and all of that kind of stuff that maybe somebody who joined Hotjar for reason A, heat maps, had never thought about. They could also use it for reason B, net promoter score, and there you go. And now, they can use it for both. So, I think it's a good approach. It can actually work really well at different stages of the traditional funnel.
I love your point about the funnel as well. I've been thinking about writing a post about the marketing funnel for years, because I don't think it works out the way it's intended to work out. My kind of two cents these days is that the classic, linear, A to B to C marketing funnel is maybe an argument for it in the enterprise where you've got to go through all these different stakeholders and there's very rigid approval processes and things like that. But, especially for self serve or virtually any other SaaS company, it's this buying process that's really squiggly, wiggly, dozens of touchpoints or maybe there's just one touchpoint, totally unpredictable journey that people go on.
And you can have people that know your company inside and out, and will never become a customer. And you can have people who know nothing about you, and they need a solution so urgently they will hit buy on the first thing that crops up. So, the way we've started to think a bit more about it is just have content for each stage of that process. Don't think of it as a linear journey. Be prepared for people to come in at any point, and leave at any point, and just try and make the rest of your content as accessible to them regardless of where they've come from.
Yeah, and I think it works really well with a product led approach because you're targeting jobs to be done, more so than specific stages of awareness or persuasion. You're trying to help somebody who has this particular problem right now, and also, you can inspire them should they find themselves in a position of needing this some time in the future.
And one thing I love about product led content as well, I think a lot about this idea that it's really hard to get a person to your website. If you succeed in that almost impossible task, you want to make sure they see the thing that really matters. Like the one shot you've got to make the right impression, give them the right information. I can think of no better thing to impart than a good understanding of your product and what it does. So much of content marketing, we always talk about importance of repeating ideas over and over, because people don't engage with your content in a linear way, they don't sit down and read your whole blog. They're probably engaged with one or two blog post and that's it.
So, I think by including your product in virtually every blog post.
Yeah, maximizing the chance of them understanding what it is. One thing to use it, and eventually becoming a customer as well.
Yeah, I think that was the understanding back then with this Hotjar-ability Score was there was an unspoken agreement that we would try to feature the product in everything we did, and that might have been a really long mention and a how to write up. It might just be a screenshot, and another one in an otherwise unrelated blog post for example, we wrote about your traditional, again, top of the funnel pieces if you follow the traditional model we talked about. Company values, we talked virtual team building. But even in there we always found a way of bringing it back to the product.
For example, we would showcase the surveys that we use to run internally while using the product. So, maybe somebody reading the piece got an idea of using surveys for their own thing. There was always, always a way of bringing Hotjar, which I think was also the fun of it because yeah, it's allowed you to really explore small and obscure use cases, but actually you just kept adding value for people who were coming there with a question or looking for inspiration.
Well, that begins to answer my next question, which was say I'm a content strategist sitting down to put my content calendar together for the next few months. How can I start incorporating this into what I'm actually doing? It sounds like you are trying permeate every single thing you write with some type of product reference where it makes sense? Was it even as small as a screenshot in an article that maybe you can't make about the actual product in other ways?
Yeah, absolutely. The smallest and easiest ways to do it is just adding a screenshot with a caption that explains what people are looking at, yes.
How do you think about choosing topics for this? I know you talk about prioritization and framework. Would this be something where you'd maybe ignore some keywords that even if they were high volume, potentially tempting, but didn't fit into this product framework, you'd put into one side? How would you think about that?
Yeah. I think it depends actually on a lot of things. So, it depends on the size of your team, the resources you have, and the ultimate goal for your content marketing program. In our case, we were a team of two people. We wanted to bring traffic to the website and we wanted to showcase the product. We had to find a compromise between bringing a lot of traffic where you couldn't talk about the product, versus choosing to bring less traffic but more targeted.
In other words, we first started thinking in terms of wanting to bring the most eyeballs to the website for lack of a better word. Then, we shortly realized that actually a lot of eyeballs that don't take action are really not that valuable to the business. So, it's not always about getting more eyeballs, it's about getting the right ones.
And that's where you have to do some... to be prepared for trade-offs and perhaps, prioritize smaller volume keywords, slightly longer tail keywords that will definitely bring less traffic but they have... They are so much closer to the job to be done, and the use case that the traffic you bring will take action next. So, you need to be prepared for that because of course, if you are measured on growing traffic, this is a hard choice to make and you might need to do some push back and asked to be measured on different things like signups, or marketing qualified leads, or whatever other metrics that is closer to business. And that's, I think, it's part of the strategic job of a content marketer, or content strategist to understand the trade-offs and make a case for the choice that is the most valuable for the business.
In our case, it was more valuable for us to maybe go for smaller keywords, but be able to present the product in everything with it.
Well, the biggest problems I see companies deal with, with content marketing, it kind of a lack of granularity into the goals they want to achieve, because I think there still is kind of pervasive ethos where content can and will do everything for you. So, it can generate a bunch of traffic, and a bunch of revenue, and it can give you links and grand mention and all this kind of thing. And what you're saying there strikes me that it really boils down to what is the single biggest objective you want to achieve with your content marketing?
For most companies, that is exactly as you say. That's going to be revenue, that's new customers, in which case product led content has to be the right solution for it. It's the most direct way of doing that. I think it's totally fine to prioritize traffic in some cases, or link building, as long as you don't conflate those objectives. So many companies build that traffic and just kind of hope that customers will result for it. And, they're actually completely different objectives in a lot of cases and the type of content that's best suited to each won't actually do both as well as it possible could do. So, yeah, great point.
And again, this goes back to what I was saying about you also need to think realistically about your resources. So, I know that a few years back HubSpot was celebrated as the best example of content marketing, because they had written about everything and they brought traffic. For any keyword, HubSpot is there. That's fine if you're well funded, and you have a huge editorial team and you can afford to do that.
But when you are two people on a bootstrap team, you can't. So, you need to make some very specific and very different decisions about what is the single most impactful thing your content marketing program can do for the business? And traffic is probably not the most impactful thing unless you are a publisher and you are getting revenue from getting the most views. And then, in that case, it's fine. But for a SAS or a tech company, that's probably not what you're there for anyway.
There was one question from your talk, which I really liked. It was, how would you do this for a non-product company? So, obviously I market an agency where our services are much less tangible than something that you can screenshot and stick into a blog post. Is this a viable strategy for companies like Animalz or other services businesses? How would you think about that?
I think in theory, yes. And I think the answer I gave was, obviously if you are selling software it's a much easier thing to do. And as I was saying in the beginning, because I can just show you a screenshot and that's all it is, whereas if it's a service company like yours it's more difficult. But I still think there are ways of showing the value that you add tangibly and practically.
So, for example, we work together, with you, at Animalz and you had a really good system for scheduling different stages of content production and sharing them with us. You could just simply screenshot that and explain that is part of your flow so that somebody on the other end, who might have some objections or some questions, can actually see how the thing works and be reassured that you've got the authority and the know how to do it properly. So, I think it can be as easy as that.
One of the ways we've been thinking about this as well is one of the byproducts of the service we offer is the data we can share with people, the research we can conduct as well. So, even something as small, this kind of touches on something else you mentioned in your talk, which was actually bring your own messaging, your own starch, your own position into content alongside the product. That's something that I think also, as businesses, could do. We are referencing the results of the service we offer. Not necessarily showing people it in all cases, although potentially we can with the process element. But actually showing people the results it has building credibility in the product indirectly without having to bludgeon people around the head and say, "Hey, hire an agency for this! It would be so much better for you." We can actually show that to people, show how it manifest in the companies we work with.
Yes, a typical case of our show and don't tell.
So, in fact, yes as an agency, you have a lot of clients and so you can measure success across different verticals and industries, and you can have a lot of ways to report back and showcase that practically. I think that's another way of thinking about product. It doesn't have to be a product, as in software. It can also be your service and the added value that you add on top of that.
Do you have any last thoughts around product led content that you've not had a chance to share? That you've been itching to tell people, and help them?
I just wish more people gave it a try. And I think you don't have to start from scratch and rebuild the entire content operation. I think you can also just take some content that already exists and maybe ranks well, or does well and try to apply a project layer on top of it. So, for example, if you have a blog post that talks about something, and you have inserted a link to another product viewers. So, instead of having your audience click on the link to be presented with your product, maybe that's a good place to add a screenshot and a caption to explain. "See it in action. This is what our product does, and this is what it looks like when you want to do this particular thing."
It doesn't have to be huge. You don't have to, as I said, re-whole your entire content operation. You can start small and see if anything changes. Then, iterate and build from that.
I love that. We had a huge push recently around helping companies understand the power of their old content, because I think as content marketers we have this innate recency bias where we're so obsessed with content creation, and what's coming up on the calendar that it's very easy to forget the content that was written years ago. Then, you go and you look in your analytics and you realize the content that's bringing the majority of the people to your site each month is not the thing you just published. It's that old article from five years ago that you've not touched in that time. It's outdated, that you've not shown any love, that maybe doesn't reference your product at any point either.
I love the idea of being deliberate about that, prioritizing maybe the highest traffic ones or the ones that ranked for the most lucrative keywords, going back and making sure people understand the product component of it as well. In most companies, content marketing is not a charitable act. It's amazing and it's important to put value on it to the world, but it has to pay a return in some capacity and that has to come from product revenue. So, that sounds like a great way of making old content work even harder for you as well.
So, one other thing I wanted to talk to you about, which is a topic very, very near and dear to my heart, which is writing keyword led content that doesn't suck. I saw a great LinkedIn post of yours recently that was kind of reflecting on the fact that it's become a bit of a dirty word almost in content marketing to talk about keyword led content because in a lot of cases, you look up the search results and you see clones of articles that look exactly the same. How do we reach this place? How do you think about that? What can we do to fix the problem?
So, there was a really good article that I think you wrote about copycat content, which I think encapsulates the problem quite well. So, in the LinkedIn post you refer to, I wrote that just because something is keyword led doesn't mean it has to be keyword full. But I think the industry is moved in a direction where fundamentally misunderstanding and misusing SEO.
So, I think a lot of SEO content, or keyword based content, gets a bad rap because a lot of it is written to rank. That's it, as in ranking is the end goal and compound traffic is the end goal. And there is zero attention to everything else, like creating authority, or showcasing expertise, attracting back links, creating an audience, you name it. And I think this is the main problem. This inevitably leads to everything looking the same. So, it's a vicious circle.
You look at an existing piece that ranks. You consolidate the information that is already there in a new piece. Then, your piece ranks. Then, somebody else comes and tries to consolidate the information, plus your piece on top. And just after awhile your entire first page is just covered with 10 variations of the same thing. I think, again this is the thing, fundamental misunderstanding or misuse of SEOs. SEO is a method for distributing content, but it should be used to distribute good content, and great stories. Not just copycat content.
So you can write content that is keyword led, in that it's optimized for a keyword. But, it's also original, unique, controversial if you want, stands out and gets you remembered. That's my take on the problem we're facing.
So, just very quickly, you hit on one of my misconceptions I address the most with customers in particular. And they come to me and they say, "I've written this amazing SEO article. How do I distribute it? How do I make people share it on Twitter, or share it on LinkedIn? Or why aren't they emailing it to each other?" It's exactly what you said, SEO is a distribution channel in and of itself.
So, if you optimize an article to perform well in search, you're in some ways preventing it from performing well in other channels because you're optimizing a completely different criteria. The stuff that makes a search article perform well, beautifully optimized on the page, SEO, often maybe longer comprehensive structures, that kind of thing is not what works well on Twitter or LinkedIn, or in your mailing list in a lot of cases. So, I love that point. That's a really important point to start with.
So, how would you start making content that is different to what is already out there? How would you start incorporating your brand into it? I guess, product led content is actually one facet of this in the first place.
So, for us at Hotjar, again, we chose to focus on SEO as our primary distribution method. But, we also wanted it to radically stand out from everything else. So, we didn't just want it to rank, we wanted to rank and be different, and be click worthy, and be shareable, because of some added value. So, the product led approach was one way to do it. I think the point is, first you do your research, and you find the topics that you must cover for your piece to be seen an authority.
A lot of the time, that's where it ends for companies. This is where you have the problem of copycat content. Now, what you do then, I think, you've now covered your basis. And now, it's about figuring out how to cover that topic for your audience with your business goal in mind. And that can look very differently depending on who you are, and who you're talking to. So, what do you want to say? What does your company believe in relation to this topic? What does your audience think? Et cetera. You can bring in controversial angles, or your unique take. I think you called them the earned secrets, or the things that are uniquely yours by virtue. Being there, done that, and having learned some stuff.
And you add all of that on top, and that's how you create content that is keyword led and can rank well. But also, that adds some actual value and that's not just looking the same like everything else. You bring your business angle in, you bring your brand belief. You also bring in that are not justified by keywords, you just make sense for your audience. You bring it all together and that's how you create, I think, a content piece that stands out.
I love... So, that making sense thing is one of those things I see neglected a lot as well. When you are trying to write an SEO optimized piece and your entire dataset, the stuff you're consolidating, the things you're thinking about when you write it, is just keywords or topics that other people have written about. It's very easy to forget things that as a reader you sit down to engage with a piece, there are loads of things missing from it like extra context or obvious full on questions that aren't touched because no other blog has touched it so far. So, I think that's a really great starting point, even after you've written your beautifully searched optimized article. Get yourself or someone else to read through it, as a reader, and work out where there are gaps, where things don't make sense. Even if there's not a keyword, still worth doing that because it's a better user experience and actually maybe there will be a keyword there in the future because lots of other people are going to have that same problem. They're going to realize that it's an admission from the current literature on a given topic.
Yeah, I think there are a lot of useful SEO tools out there, but the dataset they're working with is limited. AKA they're just reflecting on what is already there. They're not telling you what's missing, and I think that's the added value you bring.
So, I'll give you an example. I was recently writing a piece for A Drafts about content marketing. I did definition, et cetera, and I looked at the data and I thought to myself, "I've been a content marketer for a long time. I know a lot of pain points." And one of the things that always pops up is a new director comes in, or a new CEO comes in, a PO, whatever, that don't quite understand the value of content. And they have objections, and you need to reply to them and prove the value of content marketing.
No where in my keyword research did I find evidence that people needed to read that, but that was very much my lived experience. So, I thought to myself, "I'm just going to add it in anyway." So, I added a section about common objections to content marketing, and how to reply to them. Some of the feedback I got from the piece was, "Finally, somebody's addressing the obvious problem of objection handling when it comes to content marketing. Why does nobody else do it?"
And I think that's a really good example of if you just stick with what the tools tell you to do you're going to miss out on really valuable stuff that actually makes a difference, and adds true value for your reader.
It's very easy to almost limit your horizon by using keyword research tools at the expense of everything else, even your own thought process, your own experience because yeah, you look at what's showing up and we just exclude anything that isn't there. But actually, the type of query that gets searched in Google is actually, again, a very specific type of information, a very specific type of question. There are loads of questions that people can't easily formulate or realizations they haven't had or not enough people have had to actually trigger whatever threshold required to show up in the Ahrefs of the world.
And yeah, in a lot of cases it's even if there's only 10 people searching it, if you can reach those 10 people and they want to become your customer as a result of it, totally worthwhile doing that as well.
That's great. Yeah, I think, and this is also a good example of why you need to bring expertise in, whether yours or somebody else's if you're not an expert on the subject you're writing; because I think we could all probably write 1500 reasonable words about any topic, I think. But it takes a true expert to actually add the 500 on top that truly make a difference, and actually make people think, "Oh, these people know what they're talking about." Because a lot of content you read doesn't really give you that feeling. I think it's just you're reading a Wikipedia page or a dictionary entry about something. And that's where it ends.
It reminds me of that kind of apocrithol anecdote about the engineer who gets called in to fix a piece of broken machinery. And he gets a hammer and taps it in one place and it just starts working. And he charges them $100,000 and they say, "$100,000 just for hitting it?" And he goes, "No, no, no. It's $100,000 for knowing where to hit it."
That's the exact same with that. Those last 500 words, they are the money words, the really important ones that are hard to come by without years of accumulated experience in a lot of cases.
That's a good metaphor. I'll steal it.
So, one more topic I want to cover on, and we've kind of segued this way generally, which is again, you're sharing some really, really interesting stuff on LinkedIn at the moment. I thought a lot about your covering in the newsletter as well. But this was about content marketers and how they can begin to elevate themselves, their career, their thinking. I think to quote yourself was, "The higher ups were looking at a growth challenge, and expecting a plan to tackle it with content. I was pre deciding that a blog was the solution to a problem I hadn't even understood." Just talking about the person with the hammer there, it's called the Law of The Instrument, I think, where if the only tool you have in your possession is a hammer, everything looks like something you can hit with a hammer.
How did you think about that idea? What was the prompt of this share?
Yeah. I mean, the prompt for this was that I was just reflecting back on my early days of Hotjar where I was brought in as a content marketer, and I specialize in the written word. So, to me, blogs at the time were a solution to everything, and at the time, Hotjar had an acquisition problem and so, I was like, "Well, we don't have a blog. Clearly we need one." Which is a very, very naïve way to think about content and content marketing.
And this prompted my reflection because a lot of the time I see new content teams, or younger content marketers get very excited about a specific tactic, or a specific something. I think this was really prompted by the fact that clubhouse was everywhere about two months ago. And it seemed like everybody needed to immediately be on clubhouse, et cetera.
And I was thinking that a lot of the time content marketers tend to think in terms of tactics before taking a step back and starting from a strategic approach to understanding the problem that content will solve for the audience, which in some cases is a blog post, and some cases is clubhouse, and in some cases it's something else entirely. But that piece is often missing, and my reflection was the way that I grew as a content marketer. So, from being a writer to being a more strategic person was actually stopping this jumping on tactics and deciding that everything must be a blog, and starting to ask specific and targeted business questions about the problems we were facing or the goals we wanted to achieve and how content, playing the part, in the larger machine of the business, which is not something you're trained to do necessarily as a content writer when you start out.
You think that writing beautiful pros is what your job is about, and then it turns out your job is about something else entirely or can be anyway. And you have a lot of growing to do.
Yeah, and that's a hard realization. I still, I see that tendency within myself today, and I've been doing content marketing for 10 years at this point. I still, if I don't apply my critical faculties I will probably er towards the thing I know and do best, which is writing a blog post about a subject, even... yeah, it's not always the best tact.
I think we talked about this just before we hit record, but I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago actually about this innate tendency within content marketers. We all want to be writers in most cases. We come from writing backgrounds, we love writing, we're really passionate about the written word. But, if you want to hit the upper echelons of a career in marketing, or become a director, or VP, or lead a team, there is this whole huge extra skillset required beyond just writing. It's an important realization to have, and it's kind of a painful one as well because you do have to set your tools aside a little bit and do things that you suck at in a lot of cases, that you have no experience at.
Yeah, I think you, especially if you come from a writing background, which I think is the way in for a lot of content marketers. You probably know the workings of grammar, you take pride in your work. You just get excited when you find a very good transition between paragraphs, or you have a lovely turn of phrase. Your managers, your boss, they don't care about that at all. They might humor you for a minute or two when you sort of wax poetic about how beautiful this sentence is. And then, they are going to ask you, "Okay, but how is this effecting my business?" And a lot of the time you just don't have an answer for that because all you're thinking about is tactics, whereas what they're asking is, "Okay, but what's the larger strategy behind the work you're doing?"
It's a hard realization because you realize that actually beautiful pros is really not what you're there for. You're there to solve a problem for an audience who, if they want beautiful pros they might also just want to read a book or a short story, so I think beautiful pros takes a step back and you want to aim for clarity and helpfulness. And yeah, you're also there to solve a business problem, or advance the business in one way or another, and again, you writing this will become much more strategic for that to actually happen.
Yeah. I think beautiful writing is even worse than that sometimes. It is an actual detriment to the content. It's a barrier that stops people engaging with the source material, with the narrative you constructed, getting them from A to B, understanding the problem. Instead, if they're so fixated on the beautiful poetry you shared with them, it takes them away from that space.
I sometimes think some of the best writers are actually... they're not always the most elegant. They are the ones that allow you to get lost within whatever writing they're doing. And they almost make words stop mattering because you're so caught up in what's happening you don't actually notice the clever tones or phrase, or their elegant metaphors or anything like that.
Yeah, the experience I had, the first article I ever did for the Animalz blog and I was immensely proud of it. I spent so long polishing all these lovely little turns of phrase, and Jimmy Daly, then Director of Marketing, just said, "It's too highfalutin, Ryan. It's just..."
"... it's not what our audience needs at all." So, I had to go have a little quiet moment and then, eventually delete the subsequent work.
You know, harsh but probably really fair. I think all that matters at the end is how useful the content is for the audience, and how useful it is for the business. If it also happens to be beautiful, well that is great, but I think that's a nice added thing on top, which by the way I'm not advocating for crappy content, et cetera, just so we're clear. We all have a really good standard, but I'm just saying that, I think, to level up in your career, if you want to, if you're interested in, you need to think outside of just the deliverable. And instead, spend time thinking more about how that fits into the larger journey of the company you're working for. And the audience you're serving.
And another point you made as well, if you do want to just be a writer... I say just as though it's some kind of derogatory thing. Not at all. If that is your passion, and you want to specialize in that for the rest of your life, that is an amazing thing to do. It's just good to have that realization and you do need to make a choice between these different careers effectively.
Absolutely. Yes, exactly. There is nothing wrong with choosing to be an individual contributor and spending all your time creating great content. We all need that. That's great. It's just at some point if you find that you sort of hit a kind of ceiling and you don't understand why, this may be one of the reasons why this is happening.
We think a lot about that at Animalz in particular, because is this classic maker versus manager dichotomy, where the kind of logical way to promote somebody is to make them a manager and to give them all these extra responsibilities. But especially at a company full of writers, you can't do that for everyone. Everyone wouldn't want to become a manager as well. We hire people that are great, talented, passionate writers. So, finding ways to reward people and they specialize in these writing roles is just as important as helping people elevate to be managers as well.
Yeah, and likewise, not everybody wants to be a strategist or is wired for thinking in that way. And, again, that's absolutely fine. So, yes, there are many avenues and there are many ways that you can specialize in. I think sometimes when you come to content marketing, particularly if you're coming from academia or journalism, et cetera; you just don't necessarily know that there are other avenues that you might choose to pursue if that works for you. And if it doesn't, keep writing and that's good.
I will say being a strategist has had some pretty stressful moments at times, so I can understand it not being for everyone as well.
Yeah, it is. I get that.
Many ill fated strategy talks are presented to people that were just not the right thing at the time, but live and learn. So, this reminds me of one last thing. One more LinkedIn post I saw, which I really liked as well. What do you have against killing two birds with one stone, Fio?
I have a lot against killing birds in general, and also metaphorically. So, I was on a podcast and I was explaining, I was talking about product led content again. And I was explaining how it works both for acquisition and retention, and I found myself saying, "Which is basically like killing two birds with one stone." And that's the sentence I've said many times before, and I don't know why but on that particular day I sort of left myself for a second, heard myself saying this thing and I thought, "Hang on. Why am I killing birds? And why am I associating killing birds with success?"
So there and then in the middle of the podcast I had a moment where I just asked the host if I could rephrase my sentence with something less cruel. And I came out with, baking two pizzas in the same oven.
Maybe you made the dough with your Kitchen Aide mixer from earlier. Yeah, perfect.
Yeah. See, it's all coming together. I think, I'm terrible at thinking on my feet, so I don't know where that came from. Maybe it's my Italian background, I don't know. The point is, I just realized there and then that I was using some seriously aggressive language to communicate a sense of success and achievement. And that prompted me to think about the language we use in marketing, and very easily realized that we're using a lot of metaphors as our... really when you think about it, coming from war and they have a very aggressive stance. So, destroying the competition, or having the sales team on the front lines. This is a war metaphor, and I think actually when we're talking about being a tactician versus being a strategist, a lot of good books about strategy actually are about the strategy of war.
So, there's a book that often gets quoted, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, which is full of military metaphors and likewise another one which is, The Art of War, which literally talks about war and how strategic concepts from that are then applied to business; I realized, is problematic because it's language we use every day and it's full of aggression. And it probably shouldn't be, because we have power to use better words for that. So, that's where the story of the pigeons or the birds or whatever it was comes from.
It's a great point, because in 2021 companies are some of the most prolific content creators in the world now. So many companies have kind of switched on to the power of content marketing, and are churning out thousands upon thousands of words every day. It's easy to sometimes forget the impact that can have in the aggregate as well as individual articles. The language we use is definitely perpetuating or truncating different uses of language, putting different terminology and language out there.
As content marketers, we have a pretty big role in shaping how people talk about, think about business and strategy and products generally, I think.
Yeah, and again, I posted this on LinkedIn and then suddenly I found a lot of comments bringing up more examples. So, you have a secret weapon. You're armed with data. You are killing a project. You're killing a paragraph. This is not right, I think. I think we need to take some steps towards changing this rhetoric and I think we're well positioned as content marketers and people who work with words to rethink some of the central metaphors we live or work by. And try to replace them with something else.
This anecdotally reminds me of a question I got during the talk I was giving at the Wynter conference, talking about the power of being contrarian. And one of the questions was, "How can you do that? You've got a nice brand." This idea that it innately has to be a really aggressive thing to do, to challenge the status quo. I think that's a very damaging idea that is still quite pervasive. You can't challenge ideas without being aggressive. Totally not the case at all, unless you're thinking of writing a blog post about how you can be contrarian, how you can challenge ideas while being nice about it as well. I think the key thing there is just to build on your own personal experience. It's a very humble thing to do to say, "I experienced something. It didn't pan out the way other people think it did. You can take a lesson away from it."
Don't need to be aggressive with the language in that instance. Or, with the language generally, I don't think. So, I love that point.
I agree with you, and one of the comments it made me think about a lot was this person who was saying, "What if we replaced all our business metaphors with the idea of the playground rather than the battlefield?" And that, when you think about it, then everything you do is less about a zero sum game where it's either you or the competition, versus a playground where everybody can enjoy and experiment and play with mud, and get dirty. And just build a better ecosystem. I thought it was a really interesting way of framing it, like the metaphors you live by do tend to shape your life in ways you may not be aware of until you find yourself talking about pizza on a podcast because you just never really thought about the words you were using the kind of impact they can have.
And yes, to your point, you can have a contrarian opinion, you can have a controversial opinion while being nice. I think that's great and we all need more of that. So, go for it. I think it's a really good point.
Wow. Thank you so much for talking through all of these points, Fio.
You're very welcome.
Is there, you got any parting words? Anything we've not covered you want to talk through?
I was just thinking earlier on how happy I was to be on this podcast. And then, I thought, "Have you ever thought how we work in content marketing, if you just slightly change the accent, are a bunch of really content people?"
We are content marketers and content strategist and content writers. It's a really happy profession, I think. Yeah. I just noticed that while I was waiting to talk to you.
I think the same. I spent way too much time on Twitter in particular, because it is just full of the loveliest human beings you could ever hope to meet in an online community. All building each other up, trying to improve how we think about and use language and communicate with people. Yeah, we're very lucky to have this as our profession, I think.
Well, on that very positive note, thank you so much for chatting, Fio. You're an absolute pleasure as always.
Thank you for inviting me.