Last year, I wrote a piece reflecting on our first year as content marketers at GetApp. As an editorial team writing about tips and trends in the software market, we’re part of a larger marketplace that helps business find software. The team started in 2015 as a group of writers suspicious of content marketing. After a year full of trials and tribulations, we were able to take away some key content marketing lessons. Here’s a quick recap:
- Define your purpose: We couldn’t compete with the big news sites on breaking news, and learned to stick to what we do best– industry trends and insights that, while still timely, don’t necessarily need to be published at the break-neck speed of breaking news.
- Amplification is key: Without the right (or any) contributors, our content was lacking exposure. We learned that it’s important to find relevant contributors to amplify a piece of content before the writing process begins.
- Think about your audience: Writing a piece of content without defining an audience is like trying to cook dinner without knowing how many people are coming to the table. We learned to have a target audience, or even better, a target reader, for every piece of content we produce.
One year later, and we’re still learning.
As much, if not more than ever before, the definitive formula for content marketing is still undefinable. Tips gets thrown around with reckless abandon only to be completely negated the following week.
Much like our first year, our second year as content marketers was full of challenges. Some were rewarding; others were lessons learned. Over the past year, however, we’ve made some real strides in our content marketing efforts.
Based on our experiences at GetApp over the past year, I’ll go through three of the most useful lessons we’ve learned. These lessons have helped us not only when it comes to creating content, but also when it comes to defining our content marketing strategy.
Full disclosure: We were acquired by IT research firm Gartner in late 2015, which gave us access to a few more resources, including a bigger team.
Lesson #1: Keyword optimization works (sometimes), but SEO is not (and never will be) an exact science
The constant battle between too much and not enough optimization made us weary about focusing our content too heavily on keywords. We always believed in the merit of our own, amazing content to get picked up by important people and publications and spread like wildfire across the internet. When we realized that this wasn’t happening, we turned to the all-seeing oracle (Google) to guide our content.
Using tools like Keyword Planner and Ubersuggest, we started doing some research in order to find keywords that would help us target certain topics. Our aim was to target long-tail keywords (3 or more words), with low competition and high search volume (defined as roughly 100 searches per month). Each of our writers covers a certain set of topics (I cover marketing and customer service), and we set out to find keywords that would bring in the big numbers.
Our first problem was knowing what to look for. Random searches like “marketing automation for” with high search volume and low competition either didn’t exist, or would bring back really strange results. After some trial and error, I found a topic that had high potential and that would suite our target audience. The target keyword was “iOS business card scanner”, and with multiple variations of the term, had a total of about 210 monthly searches with low competition. I did the same search for Android, and found that variations of the term “Android business card scanner” had 250 monthly searches with low competition.
I decided to write both articles.
The Android apps version of the article, with higher potential search volume, didn’t do very well. You can see its performance from the time of publication in November until now.
With just over 200 sessions, the article performed below average for us.
Now compare that to a similar article, published a few weeks earlier and with presumably less search volume, but for iOS apps.
The results are jarring. The iOS article outperformed the Android piece 22x with almost 4500 sessions and counting, the majority of that traffic coming from Google.
What we learned:
In the past it was challenging for us to have any of our new editorial content rank in Google. Although our efforts seem to have paid off here, there is still some inconsistency, and we learned a few things about SEO through this example.
- Keywords can work…
As a writer, I inherently hate keywords and their potential to destroy my textual masterpiece. Sadly, I have to admit that having a keyword not only helps me focus my writing, but also provides the all-important element of “giving people what they’re looking for.” Of course, getting it into the text in a subtle way is a whole different artform. But as Google becomes more contextual, it’ll be less important to have a specific keyword rather than it is to provide an answer to user questions. Try thinking about the future of Google and how it will be better able to interpret exactly what a user is looking for.
- … but don’t trust SEO tools blindly…
Despite our keyword research tools showing the Android opportunity with greater potential than the iOS one, we actually saw much more organic traffic from the iOS piece, and much more organic traffic than indicated by the monthly search volume of either of these tools. We’ve even found discrepancies in the predicted search volume between different tools.
The key takeaway is to not trust these tools blindly. We’ve seen low competition and high search volume for terms we thought would be highly competitive, but these “killer” opportunities have yielded little or no results. It’s important to look at other things too, like the SERP for the keyword that you’re targeting. By looking at what’s already there, you can gauge whether or not you can compete with pages already ranked for those terms.
- … and give it time.
One of the biggest wild cards when it comes to SEO is knowing when something will rank. The iOS article didn’t see a huge spike in traffic until March, a solid four months after it was published. If we look at traffic to all of our new content produced last year, we can see that despite not adding new content to this segment since December, traffic to this content is on a general upwards increase.
We’ve had some articles take weeks to gain momentum, and others take almost a year. Heck, maybe my Android apps article still has a chance. The point is to not write something off if it doesn’t rank immediately; give it a bit of time to simmer.
Food for thought:
The biggest problem with many SEO tools is that they show what’s trending now; they don’t show future keyword opportunities. There may be an SEO opportunity in something that doesn’t show search volume because not enough people are looking for it… yet. If you feel like a trend is on the brink of blowing up, follow your gut and write about it. Resources like Google Trends, Twitter, or social media monitoring tools can help you pinpoint trends.
Lesson #2: It’s worth investing in resources for promotion
We’re no strangers to paid promotion, but dedicating our own time to content promotion wasn’t something we were familiar with at GetApp. It wasn’t so much for lack of want as for lack of resources. We made use of amplification techniques by getting the right contributors to our articles (as per our lessons learned in year one), but after hitting publish, we’d mostly just tweet it out a few times, wipe our hands clean, and move on to the next one.
The results were (sometimes) okay when it came to traffic, but in terms of backlinks, we saw few rolling in off the back of our content.
We saw a huge change when we got access to a promotion team.
Once we were acquired, we suddenly had a bigger team (albeit dispersed across the globe) via our sister sites to help us promote our content. One piece in particular was a 2016 Sales Trends Report that we wrote, complete with expert contributions and our own unique research. With our promotion team actively pursuing link-building opportunities, we were able to secure 19 backlinks for this one piece alone.
What we learned:
Aside from the fact that having someone actively promote your content to media outlets actually works, the success is highly dependent on the content that you’re producing.
- Have at least one dedicated person for promotion
We were lucky enough to have a promotion team bestowed upon us, but I know that not all marketing teams have the budget or resources for a full blown team of content promoters. Having at least one experienced person actively pitching content, however, can make a huge difference. It’s been said time and again that there should be as much effort put into promoting a piece of content as was put into writing it. Having seen the direct results of dedicated promoters (not just the writers) to do that, I agree.
- Find out which content is best for promotion
Just because we have a team dedicated to promoting our content, doesn’t mean that every piece of content we write gets promoted (nor should it be). We write a lot of “top app” lists showcasing the best of breed for various product categories. While they’re useful pieces, they’re not exactly backlink fodder. Where we have found success, as demonstrated above, is through research reports.
As part of a larger research organization, we’re pretty keen on providing unique data to our readers. As it turns out, they’re pretty keen on hearing it too. Once we were able to gauge what type of content was getting picked up and linked to more often, we were able to tailor part of our content agenda to that type of content.
- Social media advocacy works
If and where you can’t promote content via a dedicated promoter, social media advocacy is a good option. We’ve invested in social advocacy tools to help extend our reach on social media, and we’ve seen great participation from staff and big results from social traffic.
Lesson #3: Different pieces of content can have different purposes
From being SEO friendly and shareable, to having powerful contributors and high conversion rates, we always seem to have a million and one “must-haves” for each of our articles. In the beginning, we tried to check all these boxes in one go.
One example was a piece I wrote about Voice of the Customer, which is a way to utilize what people are saying about your brand to your company’s benefit. The piece had a target keyword (with little search volume), real-world examples with contributors (that didn’t have huge networks), and a shareable headline (that as it turns out, wasn’t very shareable). The results were less than stellar.
When we tried to produce a piece that covered all bases, we ended up falling short on most accounts. The result was an article that loosely ticked all of these boxes, but without enough commitment to any of them to really take off.
What we learned:
Not every piece of content needs to fit every criteria, and it’s easier to decide which criteria to target when you have a proper strategy in place.
- Have a content strategy
Having a content strategy is the single most important factor to consider before creating any type of content. It’s the big “why” question whose answer will decide what type of content you produce. Whether you’re trying to get engagement, conversion, or boost your SEO value via backlinks, you can create different types of content that’s more suited to hit those targets. Having a content marketing tool like CoSchedule, NewsCred, or Contently to plan, schedule, and track content helps too.
- Pick a focus for each article
Once you have a goal in place, it’s much easier to create a piece of content that’ll target that goal. Where one piece of content might focus on getting traffic from SEO, another might be better for pulling in shares via social media. Some content can pick up the slack where others fell flat.
Here’s an example of an article we wrote on the top alternatives to Sharepoint.
It did great things for SEO, but performed poorly on social. And we’re okay with that– we have other articles that performed much better on social that, while didn’t pull in as much traffic from Google, were able to spread the word in the social media world.
This also doesn’t meant that one article can’t satisfy more than one “goal”. If it’s possible to satisfy two or more in one piece, pursue that– just make sure that you commit to each goal.
- Experiment with different content types
We’re constantly experimenting with different types of formats to see what works. While it may feel like a shot in the dark, trying different things makes it easier to determine what type of content resonates more with your audience. Sometimes, there’s nothing better than trial and error to figure out what type of content your readers crave the most.
Content marketing is a continuous learning process
At the end of 2015, I reflected on everything that we’d learned in our first year as content marketers. Reflecting upon 2016, it’s clear that learning is a never-ending process. It’s a discipline that, given its reliance on Google, is prone to constant changes.
Having said that, I feel much more knowledgeable about the inner workings of content marketing, and two years in, I think we have a pretty good grasp of content marketing at GetApp.
To summarize what we’ve learned this past year:
- SEO is a valuable skill to have in your toolkit. It may not be an exact science, but it can help direct content and answer audience questions. Don’t forget that SEO often means playing the long game– just become somethings fails right now, doesn’t mean that it’s a failure.
- Putting resources behind promotion is a worthwhile investment. If you’re looking for backlinks, make sure to provide content that people actually want to link to. If you’re looking for social amplification, investing in an advocacy tool can help your content get more traction on social media.
- Not every piece of content has to satisfy every need. Having a content strategy helps define the purpose of your content marketing. From there, you can decide on the type of content that you need to produce to achieve that. Having a content mix is healthy, and there is nothing wrong with trialing different types of content in order to see what works best.
As we continue our content marketing journey in 2017, we’re sure to learn even more lessons throughout the coming year.