Content Strategy vs. SEO – What Do You *Really* Do?

Creating pages or creating experiences?

content strategy based on SEOWe know that being popular relative to your competition is how to rank in search engines going forward. Coincidentally, it’s good for business. Content is a means for communicating with your audience. Content done right supports a competitive advantage. Content builds and supports your relationship with your customers pre-sales and post-sales.

Yet when SEOs-turned-content-marketers are tasked with creating new content or with finding opportunities to create a competitive advantage via content, far too often this is the process:

  1. What are people searching for?
  2. Create a page for it.
  3. Cross-link it.
  4. Stick it in the architecture of the site.
  5. Go.

When Google rolled out the Panda update they didn’t just crack down on thin content, they made people who take that simplified, non-user-based approach  rethink how to create content on the web.

So how does one think like a content strategist instead of an SEO? Overall, you need:

  1. A good idea of who you’re trying to attract
  2. What they want/need/get excited about, and
  3. How you can meet those needs/get them excited better than everyone else out there.

It’s not just about creating pages, it’s about creating experiences. Here’s a quick guide to the basic process:

1. Know your audience, competition and competitive landscape

Insights from Think with GoogleThink about who you are targeting. Define those audiences and then ask yourself:

  1. What do they want more of from the industry?
  2. What do they want less of or want to change in the industry?
  3. What do they want more of from your company or your site?
  4. What do they want less of or want to change from your company or your site?
  5. What do they want more of from the competitors?
  6. What do they want less of or want to change from the competitors?

Ways you can find this out:

  1. Market research. Sites like Think with Google, eMarketer, Nielsen Newswire, research papers in Google Scholar search (tip: if you find a research paper in here that costs money, try searching for the name of the paper in Google web search, optionally with filetype:pdf – you might find it indexed somewhere).
  2. Site feedback: Get feedback on your own site. Add UserVoice to collect feedback, conduct onsite surveys, conduct surveys via SurveyMonkey, conduct focus groups, run site tests for $39 a head on usertesting.com.
  3. Feedback on competitors: Conduct surveys via SurveyMonkey, conduct focus groups, run site tests on competitor sites for $39 a head on usertesting.com, look at what the most linked-to pages are on competitor sites, get insights on what’s popular in competitor social networks with SimplyMeasured competitive analysis reports, do a site:uservoice.com query to see if your competitors are using UserVoice, where the feedback is oftentimes indexed (on subdomains) for all to see, run social sentiment reports with tools like NetBase or Radian6 (both more enterprise-level tools – but smoke em if you’ve got em).

2. Know your goals

  1. Business goals: Defining your business goals up front allows you to keep those end goals in focus and gives you something to work towards and measure up against.
  2. Audience Intent: Knowing what the goals of your audiences are (their intents) allows you to for a content strategy that meets the various intents a visitor may have for a page or content asset.
  3. Content Goals: If you’re working on a specific content initiative, what are the goals of that content? This comes down to the reason you’re creating the content – is it because someone is searching for it? (This is relevant if it’s relevant to your audience and your business.) Is it because you saw feedback on competitors saying they wanted a better tool, and you can provide that? Is it because you read industry research that said that your audience is obsessed with flipping through lookbooks of fashion content online?

3. Get creative: Ideation

axiis data visualizationHere’s where having a creative brain helps. You know what your audience wants. You know what turns them off and what gets them excited. You have some initial ideas on how to meet and exceed their needs. You know what your competitors are doing well and where they’re falling off. Here’s where you come up with ideas to capitalize on all that knol.

Now, keeping the intent of the visitor and the business goals in mind (important):

  1. What story can you tell? This is the bulk of the creative thinking you’ll need to do. Consider your resources, like:
    1. Using available databases: Data available from public databases like data.gov, city-data.com, more niche databases like NYC Open Data or aviation data, and/or data available via your own company or client internal databases. Can you tell an interesting (ideally visual) story via any of this data? Example: tweetping.net, Map of the Market, W3school’s Historical Browser Stats
    2. Using research and insights: Are there stories to be told or insights to be shared from the studies you’ve read or ones you’ve conducted? Is there opportunity to conduct your own studies to tell a story that hasn’t been told yet? Example: ESA video visualizes space junk orbiting earth, infographic resumes
    3. Using analytics: Are there interesting insights from your own analytics you can share and tell stories with? Example: OpenDNS’s real time threat data, You vs. John Paulson
  2. What experience can you provide?
    1. Tools, videos, interactives, downloadables, landing pages, social campaigns, in-page tools, etc.? What’s the best functional way to meet user intent + business goals + the competition?

4. Plan ahead: How will you build it?

Once you have a few ideas in mind, consider the platform or vehicle it should be built on/with and the resources it will take. For example, is your idea best presented as a video or downloadable PDF? Are there tools or new functionality that needs to be built into the page or the site? If you’re sending off creative ideation for the client to build, consider the technical and platform limitations they may have. Many SEOs sell the vehicle before the content idea – typically selling an infographic before knowing whether or not that’s the best way to present the content. This can end up problematic when the content idea that follows would really be most functionally convenient as a set of videos*.

Consider these questions for determining vehicle and resources:

  1. Are there specific resources available for the project? Will other resources need to be brought in and how does that affect time and budget?
  2. Is there a specific CMS that must be used and what are the limitations?
  3. How does on-site content live in the current architecture of the site? How will it be seamlessly and intuitively integrated throughout the site and/or network?
  4. What vehicles make the most sense for the user to consume this content through? Should this be video, PDFs, landing pages, an interactive story, on-site tools, mobile apps, a campaign tied together across multiple channels, a smokable book?

*As a side note, thinking in this manner (idea first, then vehicle) often requires pitching the idea to the client before signing on. Consider whether you have the time to spend on doing free creative ideation in hopes of a client signing on for the full production.

 5. Plan ahead: How will you launch it?

Lastly, while you’re doing audience research way in the beginning of this process, you’ll likely also want to dig into where the audience is, so you know how and where to get in front of them. For example, a biotech company might consider LinkedIn as a part of their channel strategy over other social channels like Facebook and Twitter. A company with a local presence may want to consider local press, local content and/or local launch events as part of a new content campaign.

This is typically part of a bigger content marketing strategy, but at a high-level you may want to consider:

  1. Where are your audiences participating in conversations online?
  2. What are they reading?
  3. What are they sharing?
  4. Is the content inherently social (like new or kittens), and if so, how will you utilize that?
  5. Is there more than one channel that should be utilized to promote the content or campaign, even if it’s just content that lives on-site?

———–

Approaching content with these things in mind…

  1. User intent
  2. Business goals to be met
  3. Doing something more remarkable than what’s already out there

…can mean all the difference between award-winning content that communicates to your audience and a Panda penalty. It’s no small feat to change the way you approach content, but think long term: Is it worth it?



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