I’m relatively new to content marketing. I started at GetApp, a marketplace for cloud-based business apps, about a year ago as a trained writer being inadvertently thrown into what– for a trained writer– can be the contemptuous world of content marketing. Uncoincidentally (our CEO was very keen on hiring writers, not content marketers), the entire editorial team at GetApp came from the same strong writing background. In fact, we all came from the same company and started at GetApp around the same time with the challenge of rebranding and relaunching the blog.
But give four doe-eyed, journalistically-minded writers the task of re-launching a content marketing blog, and you’ll run into problems.
We went through a lot of ups and downs in the process of trying to create brand awareness and authority for GetApp via our blog, the GetApp Lab. Through these mistakes, we learned some valuable lessons about defining the purpose of our content marketing, writing for a new audience, and finding new ways to get our content distributed. If you’re in the process of launching, relaunching, branding or rebranding a blog, you might find a few lessons from some of our mistakes before you make them yourself.
Starting from scratch
The goal was to create an insightful, thought-provoking blog in order to create brand awareness for GetApp and an authoritative voice in the SaaS (Software as a Service) industry for the GetApp Lab. We wanted to stick to our editorial guns and produce well-written, well-researched, and valuable pieces of content. In theory, content marketing should be doing this already, but given the quality of a lot of content out there, we quickly realized that wasn’t the case.
The problem for us was coming to terms with the fact that at the end of the day, we were now trying to sell something, and our new audience wanted a type of content we weren’t used to delivering. They want actionable advice. They like numbered headlines. They’re big fans of infographics. They’re pressed for time and want quick and accessible pieces of content.
We read hundreds of variations of virtually the same content marketing blog posts to get tips and tricks. Some were useful. Others were cringe-worthy. At the end of the day, we had a big arsenal of best (and worst) practices and an experienced marketing team behind us to help create what would surely be one of the SaaS industry’s most influential blogs.
Admittedly, one year later and we’re not quite there yet. In-between staying true to our editorial roots and trying to find value for a more lax audience– and with the goal of finding an authoritative voice with exposure and amplification through social media– we’ve had some hits and misses. Some caught us off guard, while others weren’t a huge surprise.
But what good is failure without a lesson? As such, we took some of these bad seeds and swallowed the bitterness of our own content marketing failures to learn a few of our own lessons about content marketing. Below are three of our worst-performing articles this year, based on amplification via social shares, and what we’ve learned about the unpredictable world of online marketing from their less than stellar performance.
Lesson #1: You can’t compete with the big boys on breaking news
This was one of the first pieces of content we published as a new editorial team, right before the relaunch of the blog. Given the need for content and the fact that we were relatively new to the world of SaaS, we thought we’d go for something we already knew about: Facebook. The company had announced the launch of its new Facebook at Work platform for business, and it seemed like a straightforward, topical, and relevant piece to cut our teeth on.
The problem, was that everyone else was writing the exact same piece. We weren’t just competing for SEO keywords with other SaaS blogs writing about the next biggest cloud-based collaboration tool. We were competing with TechCrunch and The Verge writing about one of the world’s biggest companies venturing into new territory. Competing with established news sites is hard enough, but as an unknown blog with an undefined target audience, we never had a chance.
On top of that, because we showed up late to the game just after everyone else had already written about it, the article ended up being rushed and coming across as surface-level without much added value.
*This post was originally published on the old GetApp blog, before we launched the new GetApp Lab. As a result, we lost some of the initial social shares we received on the article, although the piece still averaged a lower share count than usual.
We asked William Harris, VP of Marketing at DollarHobbyz to weigh in on why he thought the article wasn’t a big hit, and he put it to us pretty straight: “The content is bland– nothing that gets me jazzed one way or another. It likely wasn’t researched for trending keywords and phrases from an SEO perspective.”
What we learned: We did another similar news-y type piece during Mobile World Congress about wearables, and the same thing happened: it fell short and got virtually no traction. Covering newsworthy topics was never our intention, and these pieces proved to us exactly why– we just can’t compete. If you want to cover a big news trend, you have to get there first, before it’s already saturated the market. We wanted to show that we were in the know about what’s going on in the industry, but it’s hard to justify that when you’ve got no chance of ranking for a keyword as popular as Facebook.
Instead, we realized that we aren’t a news site, and that it’s not as important to be first to the game. We now focus our articles on more overarching industry trends, which gives us the opportunity to go more in-depth, provide more valuable insights, and give it our own spin, while still staying on top of what’s topical and relevant. It’s something we did with this piece on Gartner’s top tech predictions that worked really well, and again with our second attempt at covering wearables, which was much more successful than the first. With expert contributors and actual research, we were able to give a unique spin to popular topics that people are interested in reading about.
Lesson #2: Getting the right contributors is key for amplification
Most security articles go one of two ways: scaremongering, or highly technical. Security has been a big topic of interest at GetApp this year, so in an attempt to bridge the gap between the two extremes of coverage, we wanted to write accessible articles about common security concerns. The article in question was one explaining the ‘S’ part of HTTPS on the address bar of many websites. Before I explain any further, I know what you’re probably thinking: bo-ring. And that is exactly why this article was a flop.
Despite our editor’s attempts to ‘dumb it down’, most acronym-related explanations still come off as way too technical and pretty uninteresting for an ‘average-user’ audience (our audience). It went into too much detail, and despite having experts weigh in, their contributions did more to complicate the explanation than to help bring it down to an average-user level. Also, the idea of ‘common security concerns’ among our audience was a bit half-baked: most people aren’t concerned about security unless something happens, and at that point, they just want to know how to fix it.
Harris simply points to the headline as being the problem: “the title does nothing for me. ‘5 Reasons NOT Using HTTPS is Crushing Your Business’ [would have been better].”
What we learned: The audience for security-related articles is either highly technical, or very basic. We’re not writing for a highly technical audience, and the basic stuff has already been done to death by everyone else. Where we’ve found more success is writing about security topics where the contributors have leverage in their own interested networks to share and distribute the article.
One of our articles on the potentially boring-sounding EMM (enterprise mobility manage) got a lot of love thanks to huge amplification by article contributor SOTI, whose LinkedIn network was ideal for and interested in that topic. Finding the right contributors and the right audience for each piece of content before writing is essential to getting any type of amplification, especially if it’s a “boring” topic that isn’t likely to get visibility on its own.
The first step is to define an amplification strategy before writing a piece. This includes finding a knowledgeable subject matter expert willing to contribute to the piece, making sure that this expert is part of a large and active social media community, and most importantly, is then willing to share that piece within these social media circles.
Lesson #3: Always think about your audience
The topics we write about can get pretty specific, meaning we’ll focus each of our articles on a particular product category like CRM or content marketing. These are the popular ones. We also have to write about more niche topics like inventory management and HR, which by their very nature, have smaller online communities and get less traction on social media.
When it came time to write about HR software earlier this year, we wanted to do something a bit more creative. We had been reading a ton about analytics in HR software, and we’d also just attended the Gartner Symposium, where smart machines were all the rage for future tech. We decided on a cartoon trying to explain how HR software analytics can predict future leaders in a company, and that these leaders might one day be machines.
So, we hired a freelance illustrator to put our ideas onto paper, wrote up a keyword-friendly blurb about HR analytics and the future of smart machines, and waited for the likes to roll in. We’re still waiting.
For one, what we thought was a clever and funny comic may have gone over a lot of people’s heads. It was a topic that we’d been reading a lot about, so to us it made sense, but the accompanying blurb ended up being an if-you-have-to-explain-the-joke-it’s-probably-not-that -funny type of realization.
As a standalone piece it was well executed by our illustrator, but the format was wrong for social media because four boxes were too small, and posting only one box didn’t make any sense. On top of that, our key social media targets weren’t defined, and so we had no idea who we were even pushing this comic to: HR specialists? Smart machines enthusiasts? People who like comics? We had no defined target reader or user persona for this particular piece.
The final nail in the coffin was our struggle coming up with a headline that would be relevant but still get people interested. The term ‘HR analytics’ isn’t exactly click-bait, so we tried to go the more dramatic, keyword-free route, and failed.
Harris pointed out similar points in his feedback: “The title is weak. If you manage to actually click and read the post, the content is bland, short, non-productive… Promotion doesn’t appear to have been a big factor in this. You shouldn’t write an article unless you know how it’s going to be promoted).”
What we learned: Not defining our key target audience was our biggest problem with this piece. When it came time to share via social media, we had no idea who to go after, and as a standalone piece, we had no contributors that could help push it through their own networks. We wanted it to have a broader appeal than just ‘HR people’, but we weren’t really sure who those other people were. Again, having a clear audience target should be the first step before writing anything down, as Harris says above.
Having user personas would have been useful here. User personas help categorize different types of audiences into different funnels based on their interests, demographics, and objectives. Are they looking for quick tips to improve something, insights to get more details about a topic, or do they want to get information to make a purchasing decision? Given time and resource restraints, we haven’t been able to create these personas yet for the GetApp Lab, but they can be really useful for defining a target audience and shaping content around it, and are something we will develop moving forward.
Another issue with this post is that we also overestimated our audience’s interest in the topic because of our own interest in it, which is a classic mistake. We thought it was funny because we knew all about the topic, but we assumed a level of knowledge about the topic that our undefined target audience might not have. The general rule is to write for your audience, not for yourself, something which we didn’t do.
The format was also a big issue because it wasn’t optimized for social media, the place where we were banking on getting the most traction. Having images, and making sure that they’re optimized for social media sharing should be part of the beginning stages of the article planning process, not an afterthought.
Finally, the headline thing was and still continues to be a big learning point for us. We try to avoid too much click-bait when we can, but it can be pretty hard when it seems like it’s the only thing that works. Doing a bit more keyword research around HR analytics or even smart machines could have inspired something that better explained what we were trying to convey. We managed to find the perfect balance of click-worthy and captivating headlines for one of our most successful articles this year on content marketing, not to mention great contributors and a really well-defined audience for the piece.
Okay, so our most successful post is a list, but not all list posts are based on false promises and broken dreams. They work because when they are valuable, they present information in a very digestible way that’s generally easy to read and actionable.
The struggle is real
It’s easy to get caught up in the competitive world of content marketing and go for quick wins like top list posts, expert contributor roundups, and click-bait headlines. We’re trying hard to stay away from that at GetApp Lab in order to focus on more insightful, long-form, and authoritative pieces with the goal of building brand awareness and authority around the GetApp name. If getting shares was all we were after, these quick wins might work, but we’re playing the long game in the hopes of building brand authority, and that calls for more in-depth and evergreen content.
We’ve learned a lot this year, and we’ve seen the benefits of our learning, but there’s still much more room to grow. We’re still struggling with trying to write for different target audiences and user personas. We still have issues choosing headlines. We still have problems dumbing things down, and we can still be quite resistant to the idea of straight-up content marketing. But the more we try, the more we learn what works, and what doesn’t.
So, to sum up, what does work?
- Define the purpose of your blog. Is it to create awareness, or build brand authority? This will set the type of content you produce, as well as what you’ll use to measure performance. Is it social shares, conversions, page views, or something else?
- Define your target audience and user personas. It will help you tailor content specifically for the needs of those people. Don’t assume what your readers want– research it and then deliver. Research your users by looking at things like their demographics, interests, search intent, and end goal.
- Find the right contributors. This is essential in order to get your content amplified through relevant and interested networks. Look on Twitter and use tools like BuzzSumo to identify key influencers to target.
- Write content for your audience, not for yourself. You might assume a level of knowledge about a topic that your users don’t have, but at the end of the day, they’re the ones reading (and sharing) it. Leverage your user personas to help guide your content choices.
- Don’t overestimate the importance of a headline. Workshop multiple headlines before you decide on one, and use headline analyzers like that in CoSchedule to gauge how well it might work. Click-bait could be a quick win, but it’ll only keep working if you can deliver on the promise.
As we continue in our quest to become one of the leading SaaS industry blogs, we’ll take our own advice keep creating content that’ll be in-depth, engaging, and maybe if we’re lucky, even go viral.