My inner heretic goes on vacation every summer. I’m not sure why…maybe it’s that heresy doesn’t go so well with my kids being home (what with trying to raise them to be responsible adults and all). But school started last week, and the heretic, my alter ego, came knockin’ on my door this morning, all tanned and well rested. But she also had her undergarments in a knot over all of the “rules” and best practices surrounding content marketing.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not saying the thought leaders behind content marketing’s best practices are wrong. In fact, I think they’re very, very right — except for when they’re wrong.
Here’s the thing about best practices: By nature, they encourage you to accept an idea without a lot of critical thinking. It’s the old “if everybody else is doing it…” argument. But when you do stop and think, it becomes obvious that, with something as diverse as content marketing, there is no “best” that applies to everybody.
An enterprise-level retailer trying to ramp up sales before the end of the quarter, for example, would have very different goals for their content than a pharmaceutical company introducing the public to a new medication. And a blogger who makes money purely from ad revenue would have yet another set of goals. And, if the goals are different, it only makes sense that the methodology would be, too.
I’m not going to ask you to give up on best practices — far from it. I am suggesting, however, that you do some critical thinking before you adopt them. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:
It’s all about the traffic
If you listen to the content marketing gurus, you’d come away convinced that traffic is the Holy Grail for content. (Just for fun, I Googled “increase website traffic.” The search engine auto-completed for me as soon as I typed “increase we…” and returned over 90 million results.)
I can already hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth, so let me explain. Yes, traffic has some great benefits:
- It improves your SERP ratings.
- It attracts backlinks, which also improve your SERP ratings.
- It gets your content in front of more people, and some of them might recommend your product or service to a friend.
The problem isn’t that the “It’s all about the traffic” mantra is untrue; it’s that people assume it’s always true. And if your site makes money purely from ad revenue, then it is all about the traffic. You get paid per eyeball.
But for those of us who are selling a product or service, it’s not all about the traffic; it’s about the conversions. Sure, more traffic means more opportunity for conversion. Eventually, though, you have to rub the fairy dust out of your eyes and ask how beneficial it is to have the top ranking on Google if nobody is actually buying anything.
My own website is a good example. I’ll probably never win any awards for the most traffic, and it’s highly unlikely that any of my posts will ever go viral. However, it’s equally unlikely that a post that did go viral would bring in any new business. It would get my name in front of more people, but that doesn’t mean they’d become customers. The upside, however — the side that I’m bargaining on — is that a high percentage of people who come to my site are already somewhat interested in what I do. People who came to watch a funny cat video probably wouldn’t be.
Unless your income comes from ad revenue, traffic is not the goal — it’s the means to the goal (conversion). It can give you some insight into how you’re doing, but it’s not going to pay the bills.
The people who read your content are the people who buy
Are the people you’ve identified through your customer personae the same people who will be reading your content? Maybe…but maybe not. A Place for Mom is a good example. Their target audience is made of seniors who need a little assistance in living independently, but their content is clearly directed toward adult children making arrangements for their parents’ care. If they were targeting seniors themselves, the content would be very different.
Pharmaceutical ads are another example. The ads themselves are clearly directed at end users, but, since those end users can’t write their own prescriptions, doctors are the real target market. The point of the ads is to get enough people to ask for the medication that doctors start prescribing it.
And then there are things like products used primarily by men. At first glance, it seems like it would be a good idea to focus your content on things of interest to men. But the reality is that you should be targeting women. Women are the primary influencers of purchasing decisions regarding:
- 94% of home furnishings
- 92% of vacations
- 91% of homes
- 61% of vehicles
- 51% of consumer electronics
The people who use your product or service may or may not be the same people who read your content — and that realization could completely change your content strategy.
Make an editorial calendar and stick to it
I know it’s a scandalous thing for a content strategist to admit, but I do NOT have an editorial calendar. And that’s by design. For one thing, I don’t have ads on my site, so generating traffic just for the sake of generating traffic isn’t an effective use of my time. Furthermore, I doubt I’d lose a prospective customer just because I didn’t post for a couple of weeks. It’s just not that kind of audience. In fact, I hardly ever post during the summer because, with my kids out of school, my time is limited, so I choose to concentrate on paid work. And it’s never resulted in much more than a minor blip that I can rectify once they’re back in school.
But those aren’t even the main reasons. Not being a huge business with planned promos and product releases that I have to coordinate with multiple departments, third-party vendors, etc., I have no earthly idea what I’m going to want to write about six months from now. When I get an idea for a topic that does more than just take up space, I write it…even if my last post was just a few days before. And I never publish fluff just because it’s Tuesday (or any other day). I prefer to save my own time and my readers’ attention for content that actually matters. And the only way to do that is to be flexible and agile.
If you’re focused and organized enough to be agile, forget about an editorial calendar. You’ll do better if you focus on trending topics.
Spend the majority of your time on the headline and the intro
This one is kind of hard for me, because I’m very partial to an engaging introductory paragraph. But this is another one of those “truths” that relates primarily to sites that rely on ad revenue. The goal of the headline is to induce people to click, and the goal for each paragraph is to get people to read the next paragraph…and so on. But when you’re writing for experts in a given field, you have to consider their preferences. If you know good and well that they’d rather just cut to the chase, don’t let the content superstars talk you into starting off with a cute story.
The same is true for headlines. Headlines for posts that generate ad revenue need to be cute and engaging. Headlines for posts that share thought leadership with other experts need to convey what the post is about and why they should spend time reading it.
If your audience is composed primarily of people who’d rather get down to business, don’t waste a lot of time on the headline and intro. Get to the point.
Prioritize link building
One piece of advice that always makes me cringe is the one about emailing web masters whose content links to sites similar to your own and trying to persuade them to link to yours instead. I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around how that adds value.
If somebody has run the numbers and can prove a worthwhile ROI, fine — I’ll reconsider. But even if someone could convince me that all those hours spent on research and correspondence would actually have an impact on my bottom line — I bet I’d still make more spending those same hours writing for paying clients.
The same is true for answering questions on sites like Quora and Reddit. I spent a lot of time on those sites trying to build my brand identity. But then I realized that someone asking, “What the heck is this content marketing stuff?” wasn’t likely to be in a position to hire me (not at rates I’m willing to accept, at least).
You could spend days finding sites with similar content and emailing the webmasters. Unless you’re 100% certain that you’ll get a return on the time and effort…just don’t. If you enjoy posting on forums, or if you have a passion for nurturing those following in your footsteps, far be it from me to discourage you. But if you’re doing it as a marketing tool, it only makes sense if the people you’re conversing with are in a position to hire you.
Mama was right: You shouldn’t do anything just because the cool kids are doing it. Before you redo all of your work processes to adopt the latest best practice, take a breath and stop to think. No matter how obviously perfect the practice in question is for the expert promoting it, does it make sense for you? If not, save yourself some time and move on.