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How to Work with Search, Social and Storytellers to be the Content your Audience Wants to see Online
We’re hearing all the time that marketing is broken. But was it ever really working well in the first place? Despite the efforts of dedicated marketing teams with generous budgets for advertising and lead generation, B2C website conversion rates have stuck at about 2% for years, with B2B rates also in the single digits. Heavily hyped marketing technology, or MarTech, with its AI algorithms and 360-degree customer views, has largely failed to deliver significant improvements. It has failed for the same reason a lot of other marketing schemes deployed over the years failed. The problem isn’t that companies need to post more ads on more websites, or better-looking ads, or data-driven ads. It’s something that lies deeper, and which marketers have rarely dared to look squarely at: People don’t want ads and never did.
When TV and print ruled, we all wished we could skip the ads. Then, the Internet sucked audiences away from those media. Challengingly for marketers, the Internet provides a much more self-directed experience for people than TV or periodicals ever did. They now have the magic ad-banishing capabilities they always hoped for. The proliferation of free ad blockers guarantees the ad-free browsing experience to which they now feel entitled. In North America, 80% of adults use at least one form of ad blocker, according to a 2018 study from Deloitte. Millennials and younger people display the most pronounced dislike of online ads. In 2017, a study from Lithium Technologies revealed that 74 percent of 16- to 39-year-olds don’t want to see ads on social media; 56 percent of those actually reduced their visits to, or quit, social sites due to ads.
Websites can now even make money for not showing ads. YouTube gets away with charging users $12.00 per month for ad-free viewing. And publications like Forbes now ask visitors to disable ad blocking or pay for an ad-free digital subscription. Email marketing is similarly failing to reach its audience, not just due to spam filters, but also the growing use of chat applications like Slack.
The depressing state of traditional marketing has a silver lining. By necessity, companies now have to craft messages that resonate with their audience in a more authentic way that respects their intelligence, which, when you think about it, is something they should have been doing all along. They have to package their message as information people actually seek out themselves. Individuals online are looking for quality content from credible sources, and can shut out anything that’s not. This means that a company’s message must actually be the content they’re seeking.
Content: The good, the bad and the algorithms
We’re pretty much all in the content business now whether we want to be or not. Companies have waded in with widely varying degrees of readiness. Some apparently heard the phrase “content is king” somewhere and decided they could serve their same old sales pitch in a vaguely content-like package and rake in views, leads and conversions. We’ve all come across their clumsy efforts: Suspicious looking articles with unlikely headlines, dubious claims, a breathless, exaggerated tone, the same SEO keyword inserted into every other sentence, and often just poor writing. People in search of reliable information typically glance briefly at them and move on, feeling they are simply ads pretending to be articles.
Search engines too are passing on them. Google has been adjusting its search algorithms over the years to move higher quality content to the top of results pages. It has tuned its Panda algorithm to mimic the judgement of human readers, gauging quality by factors like:
Does the article provide new information or original reporting/research/analysis?
Does it contain spelling/grammar errors or inaccurate information?
Is the material of genuine interest to readers, or is its creator just trying to sell something?
Did its creator simply attempt to guess what might rank well in search engines?
If pages fail these and other tests, they can be penalized by Google. In fact, “keyword stuffing” — the practice of inserting popular search terms in as many places as possible within posts — can now result in demotion, or even total removal, of a page from search results.
The upshot to all of this is that there is no substitute for quality in content nowadays. Marketers won’t win at the game of tricking search-engine algorithms if their content is of poor overall quality. Companies should discard the outdated marketing and advertising hustle, and get good at delivering their message through enjoyable content that conveys their product or service’s true worth.
Anatomy of quality content
Here are some of the most important points to keep in mind when developing content that meets the standards of discerning audiences and finds them where they are.
First of all, there is really only one kind of person who can produce good written content, and that is a good writer. Be careful who you hire — there are plenty of copywriters out there who churn out lots of low-quality, poorly researched, poorly ranking articles for clients. Make sure to not hire any sole proprietor or agency until you have read the work they have produced. Be sure that you are working with someone who appreciates the difference between quality content and shoddy advertorial that turns readers off.
Go where eyeballs are. Before ad blockers, this meant TV and print media. Today, it means search-engine results pages and social media channels.
Organic search brings curious, interested people to sites they would never have otherwise found. Nearly 90% of B2C customers and 68% of B2B customers conduct research online prior to making a purchase — research that will bring them to you if you play your cards right. Think about the audience you are trying to reach. What do they want to know? Your content should be the answer to the question they go online to research. Google has been optimizing the search process to work like a Q&A between the user and the world wide web. It’s now more advantageous to focus on query intent than single keywords. Yes, keywords still have weight and should be used where they fit naturally into a post. But providing satisfying, substantive answers to queries is higher priority. The motto for quality content creation is “search-engine aware,” not “search engines beware.”
Make sure your content is socially shareable. Social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have billions of users all over the world forming large, interconnected peer networks. Their peer-to-peer nature is what boosts interest and trust in the content shared through them. Links posted on a friend or connection’s social account pack a lot of social proof and have high share potential. Don’t just post content on your own social accounts. Know who the social heavyweights are in your market — those with a lot of influence/friends/followers. Connect and share your content with them.
Keep it real
Companies can turn their customers into brand ambassadors by giving them a platform to tell their stories. What are people doing in the real world that involves your products or services? True customer success stories make some of the best product endorsements possible. They highlight real use cases in an original piece of content that’s actually enjoyable for people online to consume. Think about it: Would you rather read about high school students in India using IoT data to help make the local water supply safe for drinking, or stare at an advertisement?
Choose formats that allow your customers to speak conversationally with the audience. Craft a narrative that traces their identification of a problem through to its solution. Underscore moments of doubt, uncertainty, suspense, surprise, relief, delight, etc. Include memorable quotes that capture people’s attitude about a subject, or their personality. Social media loves colorful, opinionated quotes; adding them to your content/links can increase engagement, shares, comments, etc.
Research shows that 83% of consumers are more likely to purchase an item when a friend recommends it. Make readers feel as though they are hearing about a product directly from someone they know who has tried it. What do friends and colleagues say to each other when talking about products? It’s not predictable marketing speak, and it’s not long, unbroken blocks of technical jargon.
“We jumped immediately in because it was what we had wanted to build, and someone did it for us.” — Jason Newman, chief architect at Weave
“I don’t want to name vendors, but there are some logging tools now that started integrating metrics and some metrics tools that started integrating logging — and I feel like that’s a good way to be bad at both those things.” — Brendan Aye, director of platform architecture at T-Mobile
“I can’t imagine working on build-and-run distributed systems without some way to figure out what’s going on after the fact. It’s just much better technology doing that in the tracing style than in the old fashion of logging text files.” — Bryan Boreham, engineering director at Weaveworks
“Build the culture first. Start small, get people onboard, identify possible evangelists and move forward step-by-step, showing the results and using the lessons learned the best you can.” — Louis-Étienne Dorval, lead system engineer at Ticketmaster
“There’s some groundwork that you need to do, and if you leave gaps in your applications, it turns out to be less useful.” — Jason Newman, chief architect at Weave
“Instrument first, ask questions later.” — Goutham Veeramachaneni, software engineer at Grafana Labs
The above quotes are from real user case studies. Case studies in which people relate their personal experience with a product or service are an ideal means to achieve the authentic, real-world feel readers want in online content. Individuals’ unscripted voices cut to the chase in the language they share with the audience. They serve as social proof to potential customers who put more stock in a fellow practitioner’s firsthand account than they do in what a salesperson tells them. They can be posted on websites and blogs, linked to and excerpted in sales and marketing materials, sent in emails, as well as shared through social media channels. Users’ direct quotes handily post to sites like Twitter and Facebook and lend themselves to sharing, commenting, and clicking to the full article.
Quality writing, authentic customer voices and social shareability are the markers of excellent, effective online content. Deliver your brand message in an engaging narrative told through real people’s experiences, and audiences will be much more interested in what you have to say.